Here is another installment in my series reviewing the NY State Regents exams in mathematics.
June, 2014 saw the administration of the first official Common Core Regents exam in New York state, Algebra I (Common Core). Roughly speaking, this exam replaces the Integrated Algebra Regents exam, which is the first of the three high school level math Regents exams in New York.
The rhetoric surrounding the Common Core initiative often includes phrases like “deeper understanding”, and the standards themselves speak directly to students communicating about mathematics. These are noble goals.
So, when it comes to the Common Core exams, it’s not surprising that we see directives like “Explain how you arrived at your answer” and “Explain your answer based on the graph drawn” more often.
But including such phrases on exams won’t accomplish much if the way the student answers are assessed doesn’t change. Here’s number 28 from the Algebra I (Common Core) exam, together with its scoring rubric.
Notice that the scoring rubric gives no indication as to what constitutes a “correct explanation”. When scoring these exams, groups of readers are typically given a few samples of student work and discuss what a “correct explanation” looks like. But people grading these exams often have drastically different ideas about what constitutes justification and explanation. Given the importance Common Core seems to attach to explanation, I’m surprised that the scoring rubric takes no official position here. In fact, this rubric is essentially identical to those used for the pre-Common Core Integrated Algebra exam.
There’s a real danger in simply tacking on generic “Explain … / Describe …” directives to exam items. Consider number 34 from the Algebra I (Common Core) exam.
It’s not really clear to me what a valid response to the directive “Describe how your equation models the situation” would look like. Nor an invalid response, for that matter. So what do students make of such of a directive? I suspect that, for many, it just becomes another part of the meaningless background noise of standardized testing, another place where they simply have to guess what the test-makers want to hear. And according to the rubric, the test-graders will have to guess, too.
Yes, students should be communicating about mathematics, their processes, and their ideas. But just adding “Explain how you got your answer” to a test question isn’t going to do much to help achieve that goal.