New Online System Helps Teachers Evaluate Students

By: FSU News Release
By: FSU News Release

Tallahassee, Florida - April 6, 2011 -

Springtime is testing time in public schools across Florida, with students, teachers and parents focused on high-stakes, year-end assessments. As essential as these exams are, a growing body of research suggests that students do better when teachers assess their skills much more frequently. Now a new system developed at Florida State University gives elementary teachers across the state resources to make that job a lot easier — at least for math.

The Florida Department of Education has launched the Math Formative Assessment System (MFAS), a collection of tools, resources and professional development for teachers of kindergarten through third grade. A team from Florida State’s Learning Systems Institute (LSI) designed, built and tested the system with help from elementary teachers and faculty at the FSU College of Education and Department of Mathematics, supported by a $1 million grant from the state Department of Education.

“These new formative assessments complement the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and other evaluations, both interim and year-end, providing data on student knowledge in real time throughout the school year,” said LSI director Laura Lang, principal investigator for the project. “As a result, students are better prepared to learn increasingly more challenging concepts.“ In a pilot study conducted on the MFAS, students performed better on summative assessments similar to the FCAT, Lang said.

The MFAS is an ongoing process rather than a test. At the core of the system are 229 sets of math exercises, or “tasks,” available free at As teachers progress through the curriculum from one state math benchmark to the next, they ask students to perform MFAS tasks relevant to those concepts. But instead of grading the results, teachers ask students to explain their reasoning and prove their solutions. Teachers use all this information to adapt instruction to the specific level of each student, grouping students based on specific misconceptions and gaps in their knowledge. By basing their decisions on students’ cognitive strategies rather than simply whether or not their answers are correct, teachers can fine-tune instruction much more accurately.

The new system comes at a time when more than one-fifth of Florida third-graders are performing below grade level in math on the FCAT. Helping these children while they are still young is critical: Studies indicate that early math skills are a strong predictor of later academic success.

Leah Howell, a kindergarten teacher at Destin Elementary School who helped test the MFAS, said asking students about their work benefited teachers and students alike: Teachers gained insight into their students’ needs, and students realized they knew more than they thought they did.

“Most of the students in my class are able to provide some type of explanation of how they solved the problem,” Howell said. “They don’t always perceive themselves as able to do this.”

In addition to the math tasks, the system includes rubrics that help teacher teams interpret a student’s work and adapt instruction, and four online professional development modules.

“This online system is a cost-effective way to introduce teachers to formative assessment and its potential for making teaching and learning more effective,” Lang said.

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