Four Ways to Discover Why Students Can’t Do Fifth Grade Math

Did I get your attention with that headline? I hope so, but at the same time, I am dismayed. For a long time, I have tried to stay away from the “[Enter a number here]” headline that pervades educational blogs. Still, it is nice to have folks read the blog, so if the headline caught your eye, thanks for taking the bait!

Recently, a colleague of mine and I went to watch another colleague train curriculum administrators at a school district on our student performance management software.* The trainer, whom I will call Maggie, ran a report to demonstrate how to analyze the state standardized test results. She chose to run the results for fifth-grade math for the 2013-14 school year. The administrators were dismayed by the results, as many students scored in the “basic” range. One asked, “Why is it that fifth graders always seem to do poorly on the math test? It’s a thing – every year it seems to be a problem.”[Tweet “Why is it that fifth graders always seem to do poorly on the math test? It’s a thing – every year it seems to be a problem.”]

That’s a great question, and one that deserves an answer. Maggie ran a comparative report next, showing how the same students performed on their fourth grade math test. They were much better at math the previous year, it turned out. Then, she ran what we call the level movement report. The participants groaned. They could see that many of students fell from proficient and advanced to basic year-on-year. Maggie mentioned how these reports could start the conversation that answers the question: “Why did this happen?”

1. Start with the Data Available
Most, if not all, of the high-stakes tests will provide data teachers can use to start asking questions about student performance. Data is aggregated (and can be disaggregated) by total test score, test section, standard assessed, district, school, student demographic, etc. With the right software, the analysis is easy. Teachers and administrators can drill into the results to the detail they think will be most helpful.  They can use this data to start asking questions such as the one above, then use other methods (interviews, lesson reviews, curriculum analysis, surveys, etc.) to get more information that will help them form answers and intervention plans.

The data will not be as helpful as it could be, however, without evidence from the instructional period related to the standard(s) addressed. That’s where curriculum mapping helps teachers to relate test scores to teaching and learning.

2. Consistently Map the Curriculum
In this district, curriculum administrators had only just begun to map the curriculum using software that would help with data analysis. Our software allows them to tie assessments to the standards addressed in each lesson or unit, and allows teachers to “diary map” their lessons that can also contain assessments tied to standards. To make this process as effective as possible, teachers and administrators have to commit to putting data into the system in a consistent way and in a timely manner. They can’t just start out strong and then let the entry fall by the wayside, which often happens with these initiatives.

How can you avoid this from happening? Make the data entry as easy as possible. To effectively tie standards to assessment, teachers can use software to help them build assessment frameworks and administer assessments. Students can take assessments using “bubble sheets,” can take them online, or can take them using pencil and paper. Teachers can upload scores using a CSV file and let the software make the connections between standards and performance.

The right software can also provide robust reporting features that can show the same data in multiple formats – and therefore, from multiple perspectives.

3. Always tie assessments to standards addressed in a lesson or unit
Fair, meaningful assessments (formative, summative, benchmark, or diagnostic) always evaluate the student performance against the objectives of the unit of instruction, be it a lesson, unit, or an entire course. Those objectives should be tied to standards – those concepts and skills that students are expected to master at a certain grade level.

Creating, administering, and evaluating such assessments can be quite difficult without the support of appropriate software.  Having to manage assessments by hand would be a daunting task.   It can also be difficult if one has to do it alone.  Forming data teams can help teachers evaluate data.

4. Form Data Teams

A data team is a group of individuals (in this case, educators) who convene to analyze data and create information from it.  Data by itself is not enough to create a perspective or understanding of what is happening.  People must interpret that data.  Working together can help educators to create a deep, rich understanding of what is happening.

For more guidance on establishing data teams, this document may prove helpful:

*Please note that I am an employee of SunGard K-12 Education.  The opinions expressed in this blog post are mine alone, however, and have not been influenced by anyone within the organization.

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