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Common-Core Math Testing: Using an Equation Editor

Some math experts are worried the computer-based testing platforms that PARCC and Smarter Balanced plan to use for common-core tests this spring will make it tough for students to show what they know, we reported last week. 

That story focused specifically on the open-ended math performance tasks, some of which ask students to explain their answers to complex, multistep problems in paragraph form. On those tasks, students can figure the problems out using scratch paper, but they are graded only on what they put into the system using a keyboard. 

One element of the math testing platforms that teachers and the consortia are talking about, but which didn't make it into that story, is the "equation editor." That tool allows students to click on numbers and mathematical symbols in order to write an equation on screen. Here's what the equation editor looks like on the PARCC sample tasks:

PARCC equation editor.JPG

Nearly everyone I talked to for the story mentioned the equation editor as a tool that needed fixing. And representatives from both PARCC and Smarter Balanced said field-testing indicated there were usability problems with the equation editor, and that they were working on improving that tool.

Interestingly, though, the same math experts who said they were worried about students typing answers to the open-ended math tasks emphasized that they were not worried about the equation editor. "To use an equation editor that's more or less clunky, that's not my concern," said Martin Gartzman, the executive director of the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education at the University of Chicago, and one of the most vocal critics of the testing platform. "Kids can figure out how to use equation editor."

Jan Mulqueeny, an assistant superintendent in District 126 in Alsip, Ill., said students struggled a bit during field-testing going back and forth between the keyboard and the equation editor. But with a quick pointer from an adult, it wasn't an insurmountable challenge. 

In fact, everyone agreed that with a little practice, most students would do just fine with an equation editor—even a clunky one. (They've learned to type on smartphones just fine, haven't they?) But practice really is key.

"Kids can't just see this once a year," said Scott Marion, an associate director of the Dover, N.H-based National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, which advises both consortia. "They should be using equation editors in class once in a while. I write papers and I've got to put equations in them ... and I've got to use an equation editor." 

PARCC says it will be releasing tutorials on the updated equation editor soon. For now, students can take sample tests to practice the available tools. Smarter Balanced practice tests are available here

Plus, here are a few other equation-writing tools students can play around with before the tests:

Daum Equation Editor (can also be used as a browser extension)

CodeCogs Equation Editor

Microsoft Word Equation Editor (how-to guide)

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