Multi-Step Word Problems on Standardized Tests

About 5 years ago, Rachel Lynette wrote a blog post titled "Why I have Stopped Creating Test Prep Task Cards." At the same time, I had been working on a set of much needed multistep word problems task cards to support my students prior to taking the NC Math EOG.

The one about creating resources  for high stakes test prep in math.JPG

I so applauded Rachel's stance on not getting caught up in being a task card generating machine in the name of "test prep" that Rachel's post inspired the blog post below. I'm sharing it with you today because it contains my "truths" about the importance of math test prep for standardized tests.

(first published March 2013 on my original blog, Life, Love, Literacy.)

I spent a late night working on a set of multi-step word problems like none I've ever seen before. Yes, it is my spring break, but I have all but decided to discontinue use of my districts adopted textbook. (I just fantasized about moving the stack of textbooks in my storage cabinet to our storage closet when I get back from break).

The textbook just isn't engaging and when I use it, I have to send students to so many pages with SO LITTLE practice on the same type of problems that it is a futile use of my class time. I have used it all of 3 times this year I bet, but that's mainly because of the strong love for task cards that I have developed this year.

Yesterday I was reading Rachel Lynette's post about (not) making test prep materials. Rachel says she has decided to quit making task cards specifically for test prepping and I can only applaud her for this tough decision.

I personally don't mind testing season too much. (Maybe it's because I work in an environment where "the test" pressure is kept to a minimum with administrators who trust us to do our job well.) During 4th quarter, I keep a cool head, prepare questions that look and sound more like the test, and do my best to encourage students. Note, I said 4th quarter--not all year long.

After reading many of the comments on Rachel's blog post, I actually have to be so APPRECIATIVE of my district this year. We have moved away from multiple-choice benchmarks in ELA and Math to open-ended assessments. You know, the kind you might actually design yourself if you had the time and had not been brainwashed by a system of multiple choice (easy to grade) assessments? #didIjustsaythat? #yesIDID.

Our benchmark assessments are created by a team of teachers (not getting paid extra, not trying to make money off of testing kids), who are not giant test-textbook corporations. And these assessments are constantly going through a revision process so that they will be better for next year.

So, Rachel's post put me through a little personal reflection as my goal this weekend was to create some similar multiple-choice math questions to help my 5th graders get ready for the NC Math EOG's.

Although you can call it test prep, I feel I am really polishing the skills my students learned earlier in the year based on Common Core Standards.

As "Test the Season" is upon us, my goals remain the same--provide challenging, relevant, fun math work for students.

And after years of doing this, I know testing and prepping comes down to a little bit of skill and a lot of time spent orienting ourselves to "the test".

When I am faced with an EOG problem that makes my eyes go crossed a little (see below):

How can we prepare our students for standardized math tests? Multistep word problems are one of the biggest challenges for 4th grade and 5th grade students on when taking state tests. Read about the beliefs I have and how I go about  helping my students be successful when encountering multistep word problems. Includes the problem solving method for math. (state test prep, math test prep)

I can only imagine how my kiddos will feel looking at a problem like this. First of all, too much information, are you trying to trick me into picking 12? (The answer is 15 if I did my math right).

This problem catches me off guard because I know my grade-level has been challenging our students all year with multi-step problems and by creating rigorous unit tests. (Here are the 4th Grade Released Problems and 5th Grade Released Problems for the NC Math EOG if you want to check them out in more detail or use them in your classroom.)

However, never have we put them in front of 4 hours worth of questions, said "Don't ask questions," "Don't talk to each other," "Don't ask to go to the bathroom unless it's an emergency," "Don't even think about eating a snack or getting a drink of water," and then made what feels like almost all of the test questions multi-step.

Upon closer look at the released test questions, one would find that not all of the problems are multi-step, but I think that students will be so stressed by the other problems they will hardly breathe a sigh of relief when they get to the easier questions.




Combine Rachel's post with word from my new principal that we shouldn't be "drill and kill test-prepping" as the year winds down (Thank you, Lord), and here I am.

Here's what I believe:

  • As the ones with the most experience, we teachers must unlock the secrets of the test and unveil that for students. We must not allow students to sit in a fog of unpreparedness during the week of testing.

  • We do not need to cheer for the test. We do NOT need to call it SURVIVING the test. We DO NEED to constantly mention HARD WORK, PERSEVERANCE, BELIEF IN ONESELF, and remind students of how hard they have worked all year and how much they have grown.

  • We can teach (most) test-prep skills in a way that is transferable to many environments. (YAY!)

(If you want more of my testing season beliefs, I wrote about them in full detail last year in a post called "Is Your Test Prep Attitude Broken?")

must not allow fog during testing math test prep.jpg

In many states, testing failure results in re-testing (sometimes 2 more times before the last two weeks of school are over #fun #notreally). When faced with these unfair consequences, I believe we have an ethical responsibility to do everything in our power to help our students achieve.

This includes teaching with a sense of urgency ALL-YEAR-LONG, maintaining an engaging learning environment, and not betraying out students' trust with DRILL-KILL-SNOOZE as we get closer to the test.

If things were different for our students, some of my beliefs might be different. But, the status of high-stakes testing in our schools is not different yet. So while we "teach in the trenches" and keep fighting for it to change, we have to prepare our students for these tests while maintaining our CORE beliefs.

I also believe there is a time and a place for putting-pencil-to-paper with strategic packets of practice work, mainly because of the beast of testing that our society enforces on our students, but I don't believe that that mode of reviewing math or reading skills has to (or needs to) happen every day up until the test.

So, it hit me (like it's hit me all year in waves),

I need to focus my math word problem sets on themes that are relevant to students. I will try my best to make sure the resources I am creating for "test-prep" usage are just as engaging as the resources I create and use with my students all year long.

Keeping it relevant and fun, I have worked on these multistep (lots of information to engage with) word problems with a "School Supply" company theme formatted like the NC EOG problems shown above.

And, keeping with my math teaching conviction, you actually won't find multiple choice answers on these task cards. I want my students to KNOW THE ANSWER before choosing an answer so I use multiple-choice math problems ONLY when we are working in our released EOG booklets and our math test prep booklets, which I use only for a short block of time during my math block 2-3 days during 4th quarter. PS: I also wanted to share with you the comment I left on Rachel's post.

Testing is such an emotional topic once we really get into it, and I think a lot of people who make comments about testing might not quite understand the realities. (Like principals saying we shouldn't be "test-prepping.") I think mine was envisioning kids doing nothing but drill and kill test-prep every day up until the test, but our test prep follows more of a "Test Talk" approach. In reading, it still looks like reader's workshop, we just analyze the types of questions we will see and talk about what those questions mean in our language, connecting with what we have already learned this year. I never want to feel like I could have done more to help a child be successful, and making sure they understand what the test is going to look like is a big part of that.

Want to grab all ten of the multistep word problems to use in your classroom? I've also included the steps to problem solving graphic organizer that I use to teach students to ANALYZE word problems and make a plan for how they will solve the problem.