What if students “fail?” Assessing More than Just the Right Answer in a Math Class

Last spring I had the opportunity to partner with a math teacher who wanted to create a problem based learning opportunity for her students. Together, we wrote a problem called “Where’s Joey?” which required students to use their math skills to locate a kidnap victim based on a single cell phone call. This was the first time the teacher had tried anything like this in her classroom, and our conversations quickly turned from creating the experience to assessing it. How would she record something in her grade book that took up multiple days of class time but would only result in one “right” or “wrong” answer?

Many math classes focus on the end product. Can a student arrive at the solution? If so, they pass. If not, they fail.  Our standardized testing systems perpetuate this same philosophy. There are no points awarded on the ACT for getting “kind of close” to the right answer. Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards outline the picture of a mathematically competent student as so much more than someone who can arrive at the proper solution.

The teacher and I used the descriptors provided by the CCSS to develop two rubrics that would assess students’ ability to gather and use relevant resources, persevere in problem solving, provide evidence to support an answer, and present their process and solution to an audience. Once students had an opportunity to hear about the processes others took to find a solution, they were asked to further reflect upon their own problem solving.

Click on the links below to view our rubrics.

Where is Joey – Part Three with Rubric

Where is Joey – Part Four with Rubric

While many students in this classroom never arrived at the final, “right” solution, they learned a lot about collaborative problem solving, using their resources, and persevering toward a solution. While the “right” answer in math is certainly a worthy goal, assessing students on other mathematical competencies is an important step toward standards based grading that is specific, relevant, and can be better used to grow rather than label our students.


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