MCAS Math Success – Excellence or Habit?

We just went through MCAS diagnostic week. Students take a 40-question mcas math diagnostic assessment to help us gauge how prepared they are for the Math MCAS and what areas we need to work on.

The MCAS questions are more than just arithmetic computation problems. Almost every question is a word problem.  Take this one below:

Fractions Tiles MCAS Question

Fractions Tiles MCAS Question

Many students not used to these type of word-intensive question structure get bogged down with the reading and miss the math.  To excel at the MCAS, a student should go over hundreds of MCAS questions until turning words into math becomes a habit.

That goes for math learning in general. It’s one thing to learn a concept.  It’s another thing to keep practicing on it until it becomes a habit.  You know something about habits?  It’s on cruise control.  Habits have stronger staying power in exam rooms, it’s less vulnerable to anxiety.  You see this in the Olympics all the time.  Muscle memory they call it.  Ask an Olympic figure skater how much thinking she does on the ice during that 3-minute performance.  Zilch.  It’s all muscle memory.  She’s practiced her routine so many times that it just plays out instinctively.

That’s what math skills are. It comes with a lot of practice.  But that kind of practice will pull a kid through in tense situations like MCAS exams, or in the near future SAT exams.  You hear parents talk about ‘test anxiety’.  They claim their children really know the material, but just ‘doesn’t test well’.   Is that so?  Before you put another label on your child, how about prescribing the same workout of successful athletes ?  Practice.  Until they can add fractions of unlike denominators half asleep, until they can rattle off without thinking that 4/5 is 80%.  Until they hear alarm bells when they see answers that don’t make number sense.  Then see if they test well or not.

Where to find hundred of MCAS Math questions? Go to : http://www.mcasmathprep.com .  You can even pull up questions by category so if your student struggles with Fractions/Decimals, or with Geometry, you can find past year MCAS Math questions related to those topics.

We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.  –Aristotle

A step down: Federal education standards

By Ze’ev Wurman and Sandra Stotsky  |  Boston Globe, March 13, 2010
THE OBAMA administration plans to make states adopt proposed national academic standards as a condition for receipt of federal education grants. The problem is what the administration has proposed is not near the quality of what the Commonwealth already has.  [ Editorial: This is true, Massachusetts (MCAS) and North Carolina have the most difficult tests? ]
High academic standards are the foundation of Massachusetts’s landmark education reform success. They set goals for students to reach in each year of elementary, middle, and secondary school. The standards are rigorous, but Massachusetts students have proven year after year that they are up to the challenge.
The latest draft of national English language arts and math standards looks very different. The prestigious National Math Advisory Panel identified algebra as the key to higher-level math study and recommended that more students should be ready to enroll in Algebra I by eighth grade. But it is unlikely that these standards could even support the teaching of such a course in ninth grade.  [ Editorial: The Algebra-too-soon phenomenon - when kids have not been equipped with the skills, thrown into Algebra prematurely is damaging to their attitude about math.  Kids write themselves off as not-wired for math when they just have not had the necessary pre-Algebra prep. ]


While the Commonwealth’s standards steadily move to higher levels of academic content from K-12, the draft English language arts standards move along a yellow-brick road to an empty set of skill-based “college and career readiness’’ benchmarks. The content consists mostly of non-binding lists and titles included in the appendices. In math, the standards end somewhere short of Algebra II. [Editorial: Newton North and Newton South High School go all the way up to Math AP (Advanced Placement) Calculus CD.]

Ripple effects of the common core standards would be felt throughout public education in Massachusetts. New standards require new assessments to test mastery of them, and that would spell the end of MCAS.  [Editorial: Plus the extensive resources required to train our school teachers to prepare our students for the new tests.]

Ominously, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond is overseeing the assessment side of the national standards effort. Rather than focusing on academic achievement, Darling-Hammond has long touted using student portfolios and other forms of assessment like “those that have been used in leading-edge assessment systems . . . such as those in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Maine, and Vermont.’’

“Have been’’ are the key words here. Connecticut scrapped its former standards and assessments in favor of ones that look more like Massachusetts. Vermont and Kentucky also gave up on student portfolio assessments because they proved unwieldy, unreliable, and too expensive.

It takes time to develop and implement quality standards. The common core standards would be implemented just a year after the process was initiated. Only three weeks will be allowed for public feedback before the standards are finalized.  It’s easy to understand much of the support for national standards, dubbed “no vendor left behind.’’ The standards development committee includes an inordinate number of folks from major testing companies. But state policy makers should think long and hard before scrapping the nation’s best standards in favor of an untested substitute.  [Editorial: To their point, the developed countries that do very well in math have national standards.  Countries like Singapore, Sweden, India.]

The Commonwealth and its municipalities foot the bill for over 90 percent of state K-12 public education expenses. While it’s natural to be tempted by federal dollars during trying fiscal times, it’s important to remember that education will still be a state and local responsibility when that money runs out.
Massachusetts invested years of effort and billions of dollars to develop a set of standards that are the heart and soul of the nation’s most successful education reform. Let’s not give them up for a set of so-called Common Core College Readiness standards that wouldn’t even get our children into college.

Article Source: Boston Globe, March 13, 2010.  Authors: Ze’ev Wurman, a high-tech executive in Silicon Valley, who helped develop California’s standards and assessments in the mid-1990s. Sandra Stotsky is a member of the MA Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.