Bringing back the Profile of Learning for math

Is the Profile of Learning making a comeback?

The Minnesota Department of Education says no, but others are not so sure. Some say that the current draft test specifications for the Minnesota Comprehensvive Assessments in math are more closely aligned with the discredited Profile of Learning grad standards, rather than the new academic standards for mathematics that were drafted after much deliberation by a citizen committee in 2003. The Department of Education reassures me that a group of "content experts" are reviewing citizen comments and will prepare a final draft of the test specs for Commissioner Seagren's approval, presumably next month. The Legislature is kind of out of the loop at this point in the process.

Here's what Bert Fristedt, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities has to say about the new draft test specifications:

From: Bert Fristedt
To: "Teachers, and Others Concerned Parents"
Date: Sat, 27 Nov 2004 16:35:53 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Minnesota draft test specifications

Dear All,

It is my opinion that the draft test specifications put out by the Minnesota Department of education on September 20, 2004 are a disaster for mathematics education in K-12 in Minnesota. I understand that they are the result of several months work. That may well be, but it is quite clear that the agenda was far different from alignment with the Spring 2003 math standards adopted into Rule by the Minnesota legislature and governor. On first glance, one might think that there is alignment because the labeling by numeral and letter of the draft test specifications does match the Spring 2003 standards and benchmarks.

In understanding the large deviations of the test specifications from the Spring 2003 standards, it is useful to first contemplate major differences between the Spring 2003 standards and the previous standards. The Spring 2003 standards:

i) place greater emphasis on whole number arithmetic in early grades;

ii) place much greater emphasis on fractional arithemetic and handling of percentages and decimals in middle school;

iii) bring algebra back as a main high school topic after it had been pushed into the background in the previous standards in which "algebra" had been replaced by "algebraic patterns."

iv) emphasize logical reasoning as an important aspect of high school geometry

v) in its mathematical reasoning benchmarks highlights the type of precise reasoning important in mathematics; whereas the previous standards used high-sounding less precise wording that might be more appropriate for the critical type reasoning that plays such an central role, say, in the study of history or literature.

I mention these five areas, because it is these, in particular, where the test specifications makes me suspect that an agenda in their formulation was a return to the previous standards.
  • An instance related to i): The Grade-4 Benchmark II.B.2 says "Add up to three whole numbers containing up to three digits each, without a calculator." The test specifications indicate 1 or 2 multiple-choice test items.
  • Benchmark III.A.1 says "Examine and describe patterns in tables and graphs." The test specifications indicate 3-5 test items, either of multiple-choice type or "constructive response (which roughly speaking means show your work)." There is no rationale for the discrepancy in numbers of test items and moreover the addition problems are naturals for constructive response.
  • An instance related to ii): The Grade-7 Benchmark II.B.1 says: "Add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions and mixed numbers.'' This benchmark is broad in scope because of the inclusion of four operations and both fractions and mixed numbers. The test specifications indicate only 1 or 2 items despite indicating 3-5 items for other more qualitative benchmarks. Moreover, the test specifications restrict the denominators to 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 20, 25, and 100---thereby encouraging teachers to stay away from a general discussion of common denominators. It is also relevant that the standards themselves do for earlier grades take account of the difficulty that common denominators can give by restricting denominators in earlier grades---but not in Grade 7.
  • Instance related to iii): The twelve "Algebra" benchmarks in Grades 9-11 are assigned 5 or 6 test items, whereas the five "Patterns and Functions" benchmarks are assigned 12 or 13 test items.
  • Instance related to iv): The two benchmarks V.B.1 and V.B.2 for Grades 9-11 are the two geometry benchmarks that have the word `justify' in them. Moreover, the first of these includes congruent triangles and parallel lines and the second includes various aspects of circles and tangent lines. Thus both of these are broad in scope. Yet the test specifications indicate 0 or 1 test item for each of these two.
  • Instance related to v): The Mathematical Reasoning Standards are not mentioned in the test specifications. While it is true that these would not be tested in isolation from other benchmarks, it is so important that they be mentioned since they signal marked differences from the previous standards.
I ask you to think about the teacher and/or school district that is caught between focusing on the state standards or the far different draft test specifications.

Also, think of the parent who is complaining about the lack of attention to fractions in middle school and is told the school is following the state standards. The parent sees that fractions are given nice treatment in the state standards so asks about how the school does on state tests. The parent is told fine, without realizing that fractions are heavily deemphasized on state tests, state tests that have heretofore not been made public.

If you feel as I do, I urge you to make your opinions known to Commissioner Seagren now--the sooner the better. It is best if you take a little time to look at the standards and the test specifications in some detail. Incidentally, the pdf version of the standards are the official version. The other versions on the web all have differences from the pdf version. The Department was told several months ago about the discrepancies but has not fixed them, at least they had not been fixed a week ago.

Bert Fristedt
Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics,
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Action Items:

Few of us have the expertise of a college math professor in these matters, but we can all call Governor Pawlenty, Commissioner Seagren, and our legislators to insist on a statewide assessment that is aligned to the 2003 academic standards for mathematics, NOT to the Profile of Learning.

Governor Tim Pawlenty
Phone: (651) 296-3391
Phone: (800) 657-3717
Fax: (651) 296-2089
E-mail: tim.pawlenty@state.mn.us

Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren
(651) 582-8200

Minnesota Department of Education web site: http://www.education.state.mn.us