3 stress-free ways to better measure math mindsets

New assessment approaches and technologies can ensure districts measure what matters in stress-free ways.
Tim Hudson
Tim Hudson
Tim Hudson serves as chief learning officer at Discovery Education, where he supports partner districts and internal teams as they develop and implement research-based, innovative, and effective resources for teachers and students. Prior to joining Discovery Education, Hudson spent 10 years in public education.

To foster positive math mindsets and empower all students, we need to reflect on our assessment methods and broaden the scope of what we accept as evidence of student understanding. While traditional assessments like tests and quizzes will always have a place in math classrooms, districts can put their assessments to the test by reflecting on these three questions:

1. Does this assessment measure the “how” and “why” in addition to the “what?”

However useful standardized and multiple-choice tests might be for placement and grade-level analyses, they typically fail to surface how students think about the problems they’re solving. That’s one reason why, during the pandemic, teachers began “ditching answer-getting math tests” and deployed methods of assessment focused on students’ explanations. Along those lines, education leaders recently began calling for a new direction in assessment, as evidenced by U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s recent announcement regarding the Innovative Assessment testing pilot.

Fully assessing students’ math strategies as well as their answers is time-consuming for teachers. Fortunately, advanced technology tools provide more nuanced assessments that surface insights about each student’s problem-solving processes. While traditional digital resources focus only on correct answers, innovative personalized learning platforms and educational apps offer students real-time feedback that develops their reasoning and critical thinking skills. This shift to focusing on the “how” and “why” of their math answers ensures students understand that success in math is about being a good thinker, not merely being a human calculator.

2. Does this assessment provide data and insights teachers can use to intervene sooner?

Throughout my career developing education technologies, educators have asked whether our math products have embedded tests. I’ve always responded with, “Why do you want to test students more?” They then clarify that they want data about students’ prior knowledge, proficiency, and growth, and they assume tests are the best means of generating that data because they are the prevalent math assessment format.

Fortunately, new technologies enable innovative assessment formats that gather deeper evidence of understanding while generating more robust, frequent, and longitudinal insights about student learning that teachers can use daily. Instead of waiting until the next high-stakes benchmark, these digital learning resources can provide actionable insights at the district, classroom and student level, ensuring educators know which concepts students are struggling with and recommending lessons to address those challenges. Administrators and teachers get the useful data they want—not the tests they don’t.

3. Does this assessment reduce anxiety and cultivate curiosity?

Eliminating stress and sparking curiosity are keys to student engagement and learning. Unfortunately, math assessments typically increase stress and reduce curiosity—most students think math class is a place where they are given answers to questions they’ve never asked. Because students learn what teachers care about by looking at what is put in the grade book, we can use new assessment approaches to change this mindset.

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For example, using a wider variety of non-traditional formative assessments can curb some of the anxiety surrounding math tests and quizzes. By providing constructive feedback “just in time” along the way, educators can reduce stress by supporting students’ improvement without making every assessment a consequential event. In addition, teachers can create assessment items that invite students to ask questions about a situation to assess their curiosity and understanding of the situation.

Every student should feel engaged and confident as they develop their capabilities in math. This feeling is especially necessary during assessments because stressed students cannot perform their best. By using different forms of assessment, we can send a powerful message to students that success in math is not confined to memorizing formulas and remembering procedures—it’s about how they think about problems and remain engaged as they grow.

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