2+2=___. Explain Your Answer ~ Jen

IMG_20131025_073421Gabriel is a math whiz.

But he got a lower than normal score on his first math test this year. Even though his school is private, they have adopted the Common Core. Some things on the test looked odd to me, so I decided to look up the Grade 2 Common Core math standards.

One page. Basic math. Awesome. My kid needs to learn to add and subtract and dabble in multiplication. He needs to further his understanding of the base-ten system, which means he needs to understand that 853 is 8 hundreds, 5 tens and 3 ones.


But here’s what I am seeing in his homework. Problems like this:

Another way to write 245 is:

_____100s   +   _____10s  +   _____1s    Explain your answer.

Uh. Explain what? It’s a fact. What is there to explain? That 245 is 2 hundreds, 4 tens and 5 ones? Didn’t he just demonstrate his understanding by getting the question correct?

And then this, on his math test:

Which number sentence uses a ten to get the answer to 7+7?

a. 10+7=17               b. 7+7=14                            c. 10+4=14                           d. 9+8=17

He got it wrong. His teacher gave him a chance to earn back half points if he corrected his mistakes, so we went over it.

I had him read the question out loud to me.

“What is the question asking you?” I asked.

“I don’t know” he said.

The question wants him to demonstrate that he knows that 14 is 1 ten and 4 ones. And at the same time, it wants to test his basic math skills, that 7+7 is 14, and 14-10 is 4. All of these things are apparent in the CC Math standards for 2nd grade.

“Well, how did you choose your answer then?”

“I looked at the problem. There was no answer to 7+7, so I picked the one that told the answer to 7+7.”

“Ok. How many tens are there in 14?”


“How many ones?”


“The question wants you to pick the sentence that uses those two numbers.”

“Oooohhh.” Pause. “Why?”

I don’t know.

When I was in school—back when the US scored much higher in the world rankings in math and science—we just learned math. Add, subtract, multiply and divide—and the multiply and divide didn’t happen until third grade. I remember this because I was the second child in Mrs. Alexander’s class to master my tables. I got a cool pen.

Our math wasn’t convoluted and complicated by silly questions like “Explain why 2+2=4”.

But now, 33 years later, we have this: a math question that tests reading comprehension and critical thinking, which is dodgy when we’re talking about 7 year olds who are still evolving readers.

What it doesn’t test is math.

There is nothing wrong with common core. I have read the second grade standards and the high school ELA standards. They are a list of stuff that good teachers teach anyway. Maybe using new-fangled vocabulary, but that’s it.

The standards are not the problem. Having basic common standards is also not the problem.

The problem is—and always has been—the testing. The testing has never worked because it has never given teachers useful data. Every year, we sat down with our test scores and the test and tried to figure out what we needed to do to improve. And every year we hit some variation of this problem:

I’d have a class of 38 11th grade students. Almost 60% of those were English Language Learners; almost 80% of them would be reading two or more levels below grade level. The reading piece was Young Goodman Brown, by Nathanial Hawthorne, with a lexile (reading) level of 1270 (you can see the actual test questions here, on page 7). The lexile level for 11-12 grade tops out at 1210. So this reading piece is college level.

My students did not test well on this piece. Duh.

Is it because they don’t understand what the questions were asking them?

Or it is that they couldn’t comprehend the dang thing to begin with? That we lost them at the first paragraph, which goes like this: Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons on her cap while she called to Goodman Brown.

So at the end of the day, what did I know: that my kids tested poorly on this piece, which I could have predicted with 100% accuracy before they even started. Because 11th graders reading at a 9th grade level aren’t going to handle a college level reading piece very well.

What I couldn’t know from this test is their mastery of 11th grade ELA standards. Which is supposed to be the whole point of the testing.

Bad data. Math scores that tell us more about reading than math. Reading scores that tell us what we already know but have no systems in place to address. Millions and millions and millions of dollars.

For what?


6 thoughts on “2+2=___. Explain Your Answer ~ Jen

  1. Yeah I look at my son’s 2nd grade math and he has to explain how he came up with how many hundreds, tens and, ones are in a number and he’s like there is no other way to explain it by getting the right answer.

  2. I wonder if it would be marked correct on a CC test to state that another way to write ‘245’ is “zero hundreds + zero tens + two hundred and forty-five ones,” or (alternatively) “2.45 hundreds + zero tens + zero ones,” or “zero hundreds + 24-and-a-half tens + zero ones,” and so on.

  3. Try sitting in an IEP for your special needs child, who is only 5, and being told he has to know how to add and subtract (without using manipulatives such as blocks) by the end of May. Considering his biggest hurdle is interacting socially in an appropriate manner, through things like play, the added pressure of what his math skills should be in 6 months makes me crazy. As I was listening to the standards for kindergarten, I pointed out that every single person in the room, there were 6 adults in the IEP, had a masters degrees or the equivalent of, and not one of us were asked to meet these state standards or were taught in the way out kids are being taught. It really bothered me.

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