Failure

This weekend I spent several hours grading chapter tests.  I’ve graded chapter tests in the past, and they did not take this long.  What really held me up on these is that so many students did so poorly.  I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of their math so I could give them as much partial credit as possible.

In the end, an average of about 30% of my students did not pass this test.  This is much lower than on previous tests and quizzes, and it got me thinking.  At first, I was surprised.  Th chapter covered solving single-variable equations and working with ratios and proportions.  I know students have actually been doing this since middle school, so this isn’t really new material.  The problems we’re working with are more sophisticated, perhaps, but the same rules still apply.  I had noticed that some students seemed to need to think about things more than I thought they should, but the test results made me feel like there were a lot of students who were completely lost.  I wondered how I could have missed that (and I am still not sure).

I then remembered that last year they had the same problem.  I’ve been looking over what was done for chapter four last year, and saw that they had taken three days out to reteach some of the content in chapter three.  I don’t think the kind of mistakes that were made would require three whole days.  And it might even be possible to weave the reteaching in with the new chapter (solving working with linear equations).  That’s promising… apparently we’ve done better than last year.

For a while I was angry at myself.  Was I really not paying enough attention to notice that a third of my students have been lost for weeks?  Then I realized that the test was given on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving break – a break made longer by two snow days.  So our students had a single day to review after being out of math for almost an entire week.  Maybe they just didn’t remember.

When I made a list of the most common mistakes I was seeing, I noticed that much of the time students missed points because they did not follow directions, or were a bit lazy in their math and made simple errors like dropping negative signs or adding incorrectly, and especially not checking their work.  I even had several students who checked their work, saw that they had gotten the wrong answer, and then just left the problem as is.  After thinking about it, I decided that the students seemed to understand the procedure generally, but they made a lot of thoughtless mistakes in the application process.  This makes me wonder a bit.  I believe that it’s important to learn to do mathematics with accuracy and precision.  It’s important to work neatly and communicate results clearly.  Most of my students do not display these traits.  I think it’s time to start upping the expectations and making this an explicit part of the instruction.

In the end I decided that it was really alright that a third of my students didn’t pass the test.  A great many of the students who didn’t pass haven’t really been taking their learning seriously.  They’re often absent, never make up missed work, and rarely do their homework.  Is it reasonable for me to expect that they pass the test?  Perhaps not.  Even with such a poor score, most students are still getting a C or better.  For those that aren’t, my CT and I have agreed that tomorrow I will pull them out, one by one, and talk with them about developing a plan to get them caught up and passing.  There is still time for most of them.  And even for those that probably cannot pass, I think it’s still important for them to make an effort and continue to learn – if they work hard they still have a chance to pass the end of course exam, even if they don’t get that first semester math credit.  We’ll see how it goes.

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