Reading as a confounding factor in math assessments

In an effort to increase the validity of standardized math achievement tests, researchers at the University of Oregon examined the effect of providing a video presentation of complex word problems. The standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics state that “assessment should promote equity by giving each student optimal opportunities to demonstrate mathematics power

.”. Lengthy, complex word problems pose non-mathematical difficulties for students with low reading fluency. In effect, these students are being graded on their reading ability as well as their mathematics skill. The Oregon researchers tested 247 middle-school students on 60 word problems. One half of the questions were presented in standard written form, while the other half were read by an actor on a video monitor.

Results revealed that the oral presentation only made a difference for the longest, most difficult word problems — those with multiple verbs and a number of unfamiliar words. And the only students to benefit were those with low reading ability but adequate math skills. With this test accommodation, these students were more likely to perform at levels comparable with their mathematics abilities.

A video presentation essentially eliminates decoding, word substitution and lack of time problems. Students with average or above-average reading ability gained no advantage from having the problems read aloud, and poor math students did not do significantly better. These researchers speculated that although the video may have boosted their understanding of the problems, poor math students lacked the math skills to take advantage of their improved comprehension.

These researchers contend that combining a significant amount of reading with mathematics problem-solving creates a test that is not a valid indicator of mathematics skills for those who are poor readers. Removing non-mathematical sources of difficulty gives educators a clearer picture of these students’ math skills and understanding. Problem-solving is one of the primary goals of mathematics education. Since many students will face mathematics- related problems in written form outside of school, it is reasonable that students be taught and evaluated on their ability to solve written word problems.

It is misleading, however, to integrate reading and math into one test that is called a math achievement test with no acknowledgement of the reading skills being tested. This study shows that blanket accommodations are unnecessary. When attempting to evaluate the math skills of below-average readers, however, a video accommodation of very long, complex word problems eliminates reading ability as a factor.

“Reading as an Access to Mathematics Problem Solving on Multiple-Choice Tests for Sixth-Grade Students,” Journal of Educational Research, Volume 93, Number 2, December 1999, pp. 113-125.

Published in ERN March 2000 Volume 13 Number 3


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