Explorations In Math

The Influence of Test Scores

Published on September 1 2011

As we at EIM talk with our different constituencies, there are questions that come up regularly. These are thoughtful questions from people interested in our success. Starting with this post, I’ll be addressing these questions regularly here in Math Matters. I hope you will take the time to respond and to ask additional questions. This kind of dialog helps keep us focused and open to possible changes. Here’s the first question, and it’s an important one:

Why are we seeing no changes in math test scores in the schools where EIM has a presence? How do you know your work is making any difference?

There are two reasons for this. First, there is no way to tease out any impact Explorations in Math has on test scores; they are dependent on too many variables ranging from overall attendance, parent/family support, socio-economic status, self-esteem, and quality of instruction to more child-specific factors: Did the child sleep well the night before? Is she not feeling well the day of the test? Is she coming to school stressed for whatever reason? Did she skip breakfast?  Was she absent when, for example, fractions were introduced? To isolate EIM’s impact would require a longitudinal study involving several schools, something we’re not equipped to do at this point.

The second reason is that, while we believe our work does have a positive influence on test scores that is not our mission. Our mission is to work with schools to help establish a sustainable math culture – to transform beliefs, behaviors and attitudes around math. Let me illustrate.

Six decades ago Rudolf Fleisch published his ground-breaking book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. That book ignited a literacy movement across the country that resulted in creating a strong culture of literacy in schools. Some of the signs of this culture are extensive professional development, literacy specialists and literacy teams, family reading nights, leveled reading books, reading assemblies, book fairs, distribution of free books, and, of course, a well-stocked library with a professional librarian.

This culture of literacy is so pervasive, none of us even think about it. But if we were to try to cut back on any of these activities, there would be strong opposition.

Now look at math. What have we done to create a culture of math? Nothing. On the contrary, as I’ve noted in previous blogs, we’ve turned math into drudgery, into “an impenetrable swamp of disconnected procedures, rules, algorithms, facts, formulas and definitions.” This is where EIM comes in. If we can help schools and families build a sustainable math culture, one where math is seen as important as reading, where teachers are confident and competent in their teaching of math, then we believe it’s inevitable that our children and our students will develop an understanding and appreciation of math, will discover the joy and the beauty of math, just as they have for reading. This will go a long way to improving test scores.

Dave Gardner

Mathematician in Residence

Explorations in Math

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