How Not To Start Math Class in the Fall

My girls started school yesterday. Fourth and second grade. No idea how that happened! IMAG0343_1_1

Today, on the second day of school, each kid had her first day of math, which she spent taking a math test. By their descriptions, the tests were typical, elementary school, beginning-of-year-diagnostics: lots of questions, a whole random collection of content, multiple choice. Each child was told:

  • There will be no talking.
  • You may not work together.
  • I can not help you.

I’m sure the district or school requires this test be given. I’m sure the curriculum starts out with this beginning-of-year-assessment. I’m not criticizing the individual teachers here.

But I don’t get this tradition. NOT ONE BIT.

Teachers have two different dominant needs at the start of a school year:

  1. Teachers need to set a tone and a climate for mathematics. They need to build community and trust and relationships and an atmosphere conducive to collaboration and risk taking and inquiry and learning. They need to establish routines and expectations.
  2. Teachers need to begin gathering useful formative assessment about their new students so they can plan effectively.

The stock beginning-of-year-assessments fail on both counts. I think the ways they fail the first one are obvious. The key word in the second point is useful. On day one, I really don’t care if my students know the vocabulary word for a five-sided polygon, can tell time to the half hour, and can calculate perimeter accurately. I’d much rather know how they attack a worthy problem, how they work with one another, and how they feel about the subject of mathematics. I am much more interested in the mathematical practice standards than the content standards in the fall.

There are many wonderful ways to kick off math. I’ll say it again to give room for a second collection: there are many wonderful ways to kick off math. You can do math autobiographies. You can do Talking Points and tackle some math myths. You can establish essential routines as efficiently as possible and then launch into a great problem. You can teach expectations in a mathy way. You can get kids counting or solving or working or playing a game or talking about math and observe how they work together and how they think. You can ask questions and listen in. You can get to know them.

Above all else, you can make it clear what math class will feel like this year. And please tell me it won’t feel like this:

  • There will be no talking.
  • You may not work together.
  • I can not help you.


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38 thoughts on “How Not To Start Math Class in the Fall

  1. It’s part of a long tradition of US public education called Kill Their Minds And Spirits (the sooner, the better).

    It’s not just in math class, but math class (and far too many math teachers) are perfectly suited for the task.

    Sad, isn’t it?

  2. Well said TJ Zager. I am right there with you! Still so hard to believe this is still happening in our schools and classrooms (well, probably not really hard to believe, I just don’t want to!).

  3. Perfect timing! My sentiments exactly! Such an important message to spread right now I always let my students know my expectations and that the beginning of the year/unit testing that I am required to give is the least important thing in math. Math is problem solving, working with others, and making sense of a situation. But I do let them know that unlike some teachers they may have had, I do analyze the data from the assessments and try to plan differentiated lessons or challenges so I can help them learn in the style and pace that would help them fill holes in their math skills or advance their thinking. If they do give it a good effort, it will give me some valuable information but I don’t want them to stress and feel like failures if they don’t understand a problem. I also ask them that if they do want me to really help ‘customize’ things, if they show me their work/thinking on even the multiple choice questions, I can help isolate where they went wrong and we can work on those areas. Without fail, I typically get a high rate of buy in and students realize I mean what I say.

    On Thu, Sep 1, 2016 at 5:06 PM, Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish Youd Had wrote:

    > tjzager posted: “My girls started school yesterday. Fourth and > second grade. No idea how that happened! Today, on the second day of > school, each kid had her first day of math, which she spent taking a math > test. By their descriptions, the tests were typical, elementary ” >

  4. Reblogged this on mbrunnermath and commented:
    I’ve already started my year, and I started it with big ideas about learning and success and how to work in a group and enjoy math. We have done so much talking; I have to rework transitions from independent times and group work. Math is social and is learned well socially. I wish every district leader would read this and take it to heart.

  5. I’ve been teaching math and science for over 20 years, and I couldn’t agree more. I feel the need to point out, though, that it’s probably not the school or even the district requiring this — it’s the state and federal legislation that now dictates far too much of what goes on in our classrooms.

    1. True. But I can’t imagine a state or federal law dictating that this test must be given on the first day of math. A timing decision like that is a local decision.

  6. What a terrible practice but I was guilty of this in my early career. Being mindful about setting up our classroom on that first day is WAY more important than what kids know or can do. A test does not equal an assessment especially on the first day.

  7. I think an even bigger conversation is how we transfer formative assessment data from year to year. If we have a system of informing the new teacher where each student left off in the spring, the teacher doesn’t feel as overwhelmed by trying to assess where every student is in every standard on the first (or second) day of school. We tell teachers to pre-assess and that’s what they are trying to do. Albeit in an antiquated way. I give them credit for trying to meet the students where they’re at. And I truly believe that if they had past data to start with, they might feel more willing to let go of that more easily.

    Personally in my coaching, I suggest teachers try to find out what strategies and models the students are coming in with, and what their beliefs about math are. This broader focus allows the teachers to think differently about that beginning of the year assessment.

    1. I wish I could agree that that’s what’s going on here, but both my kids looped. Their teachers know them well and had the same classes last year! It’s just default practice, likely for sorting kids into title, RTI, etc. 🙁

      Even if it’s a requirement, it shouldn’t launch the year.

  8. Math is so much about experienced understanding and we all learn at a different level and understanding. Math is a stacked knowledge and without a strong understanding of the fundamentals, you simply cannot move forward and be successful. Math is about understanding. Way too much is focused on “getting the right answer”. Now let’s look at those statements:

    There will be no talking.
    This means, no socializing and wasting time not focused on your work. But it’s sold at no talking, no communicating. I will say when children are given the opportunity to talk they will not be talking about the work at hand. However, no talking should be replaced with “keep it down while you are working” big difference in presentation.

    You may not work together.
    No working together as a team. No sharing of ideas.
    All of these things are counterproductive to problem solving. I believe “think tanks” in business know that having different ideas and view points is the epitome of finding a solution. Two partials solutions often combine to create a powerful final solution. Children need to know that cooperation not isolation is the key to success.

    I can not help you.
    As a teacher, this phrase should not ever be said, ever. It should be presented as “I would like to help you, but I am not allowed to help you because part of this exercise is think about how you can solve it by yourself. I need you to try your best to do it on your own and when you have shown effort then I will provide guidance in the right direction.”. Again, presentation is everything.

  9. Sounds like my school. I teach high school math in Ohio and we have Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) that must be measured each year. We can either use a state approved vendor assessment or create our own. These tests are administered during a window at the beginning of the year and a window towards the end of the year. Ideally, the test should be identical and consist of the material that will be covered during the school year. In other words, the test is over information that the students haven’t been exposed to yet. We are supposed to adhere to typical state administration procedures, no talking, no questions, no electronic devices, etc.

    But these assessments are used as part of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES). Our district does allow the SLO given at the end of the year to be graded as an exam, as a way to cut down on the amount of tests given, but the primary purpose is to be a major component of my formal evaluation and job security.

    If I have a group that is new to the SLO test I make sure to be explicitly clear what the purpose of the test is, that they will NOT know the information on their unless they have taken the class before, that it is not a grade. I even spend some time explaining how the test is tied into my job security, and that ultimately this is a game. Which is how I introduce the SLO test to the students who have taken it before, as a game. When even talk about how it would be possible for students to gang up on me and sabotage my job security using the SLO test.

    It works great with my jaded and cynical high school students. It allows them to see that I sense the same BS that they do, so that when instruction begins I will do everything in my power to try protect them from the BS of federal, state, and local policies that sound good on paper. It also has the effect of making my students much more cooperative when it is BS that can’t be avoided (SLO testing).

    In Ohio we do this across subjects and grades. My son just took one in Kindergarten, but he doesn’t comprehend the pointlessness of the system. All he knows is that he had to take a test that he didn’t know how to do anything and the teachers didn’t help him. And it ruined his day.

  10. Makes me sad. There are so many really fun ways to assess what students know. Once they start enjoying math, their “I can’t do this filter” goes away and their math world opens up.

  11. Your post is making me think about what happens in my school system. I think it’s pretty positive but would be interested to hear others’ perspectives. We used to do the type of multiple choice test you speak of, but now we conduct one-on-one interviews with students. The interview script is a bit of a “choose-your-own-adventure” in that the responses of students determine whether you ask them the next (harder) question or move on to another section. This means that students don’t experience that feeling of defeat when they are continually asked questions they don’t know the answer to. To preserve the integrity of the assessment tool, students are not told whether they are correct or incorrect. Instead, the teacher’s response for each answer is to ask them to explain their thinking and to thank them for their response with an encouraging smile. And the students smile back! A lot of the time they don’t realise when they get a question incorrect. This used to bother me, but I came to realise that it’s better this way: there are better ways and times to challenge my students’ thinking. So I just make a note of the type of error, knowing I’ll have plenty of time in the coming year to address it.

    Each interview lasts about 40 minutes. While some new students begin with some concern, this is usually overcome pretty quickly. I’ve found it a great way to forge positive relationships with my students as well as to establish with them that what I’m most interested in is their thinking. Most of the kids seem to enjoy it: they have the undivided attention of their new teacher for 40 minutes – an adult who is interested in them and their thinking.

    There are two pupil-free days set aside at the beginning of the school year in which to start testing, and every level of the school teaching community is involved including the principal, deputy, classroom teachers and learning support teachers. Parents book their kids in ahead of time and bring them to school only for the length of time it takes to administer the interview. We aim to have half the school interviewed before the school year starts. Kids identified as being mathematically “at risk” at the end of the previous year are targeted within the first week of term (so that we can start our intervention program by Week 3 at the latest) and the rest of the school are done by the end of Week 4.

    The data we obtain is rich, relevant and immediately useful. We spend time analysing it as a school staff in week 5 in order to identify the needs of cohorts and individuals, set school maths goals and plan PD, as well as using it to track the growth in our kids’ understanding from year to year. (There’s a big data wall in the staff room that gets updated at least twice a year.)
    Sorry for the long post. If you’ve made it this far, I’d be interested to know your thoughts about this approach.

    1. Hi Sally. I’m sorry it took me so long to reply to your thoughtful comment. What you’re describing sounds humane and pretty positive for kids. Definitely a step up from the broadly administered multiple choice test! Of course, the devil will always be in the details. Intervention can be fantastic, or it can be tracking. In your case, I hear a deep concern for the experience from the point of view of the students. I wonder if you’ve asked students about it, later on, when you know them better? I’m curious if any students get worked up over coming in for testing before school. I hear that the interview itself feels good (at least for most), but I wonder about the anticipation? I am just thinking about my own kids. Both of mine would sweat this.

      In general, I’m a big fan of 1:1 or small group interview assessments. It’s so hard to find time for them, but they can be amazing. I especially like the CGI ones from the University of Washington. My buddy Graham Fletcher has been using some interviews out of New Zealand. And for older kids, Marilyn Burns’ MRI is really interesting. I’d love to hear which tool you’re using?

  12. Thank you for writing this!
    Frustrating that many think that the only way to get formative assessment about our students in math is through a diagnostic individual test. In reality, we are diagnosing our students every moment of every lesson when we listen to them, hear their answers to each other’s questions, watch how they handle challenges during difficult tasks, etc.
    While some may feel it is necessary to do these formal diagnostic tests (I definitely don’t), could we at least interview the students about one or two of the questions or have small groups complete a few of the tasks together and also be able to diagnose them as mathematicians.
    What we believe about math and the goals of mathematics education really do impact our everyday decision making in the classroom and at the system levels.

  13. Thanks for the very timely and important post. Although our curriculum calls for a beginning of the year assessment in all grade levels 1-5, we elect not to administer it, and I consider that a small victory. The issue of the way testing, high stakes standardized and otherwise, has corrupted our system of public education, looms over most everything we do. Unfortunately teachers are caught in the middle, often having to do things they know are not in the best interests of their kids. All we can do is to continue to advocate on behalf of our students, as you have done here.

    1. Thanks, Joe. Sorry it’s taken me so long to catch up on comments here. I’m so glad you fought the fight to skip the beginning of year assessment. Your kids and teachers have benefited so much from your advocacy. It’s part of why I look up to you so much!

  14. Wow – thank you for sharing your insight.

    As a pre-service teacher, we learn about taking diagnostic assessments of our students in order to differentiate our instruction to their appropriate zones of proximal development. It is amazing to see how quickly this can be misinterpreted as a rigid form of assessment. I absolutely agree the teacher could have done much better, especially considering the positive climate needed in the math classroom to foster a growth mindset!

    Also, thank you for sharing relevant examples of alternative!

    – A 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! Sorry it’s taken me forever to get back to this space. I think you’re totally right, and I think you’ll notice this pattern throughout your career. Well intentioned practice turns into something damaging upon implementation. It wasn’t too many steps to go from “formative assessment is important” to what my kids were subjected to. As a teacher, I hope you’ll keep an eye out for this sort of drift. I find that there are two mindsets that really help: (1) questioning the purpose of the practice, and (2) adopting a student-centered stance.

      I hope you’ll keep me posted as your thinking evolves.

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