Why do children differ in mathematical competencies? The experience of a standardized test in the primary school of Canton Ticino, Switzerland.

Zanolla, Giovanna (2014) Why do children differ in mathematical competencies? The experience of a standardized test in the primary school of Canton Ticino, Switzerland. In: Proceedings of the conference IISES Academic Conference, 24-27 June 2014, Reykjavik, Iceland. (In Press)

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Abstract

Standardized tests are, as it is well known, a highly controversial and widely debated topic. On the one side they are considered a relatively objective tool for measuring student achievement that consumes little class time and produces useful information on which teachers, school administrators and policy makers can rely in order to assess and improve their classes or schools (Crescentini and Zanolla, 2013). On the other side, according to some authors, they only reveal students’ knowledge during the very short timeframe in which the tests are administered (Boaler, 2003), the results are influenced by factors such as anxiety or time pressure (Buck, Ritter, Jenson & Rose, 2010) and reflect the inequities that already exist within schools and end up advantaging the students from higher socioeconomic statuses (Vigdor and Clotfelter 2003; Alon, 2010). Despite all the criticism, a recent project aimed at producing and administering a standardized test to evaluate mathematical competencies in the fourth class of primary school in Ticino, an Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, has brought some interesting findings about the pupils’ weaknesses and strengths and the overall school system. The paper is aimed at presenting this test, which has involved almost 3,000 pupils, and at examining the main determinants of the results obtained by the pupils. The analysis of the impact of environmental, school, class, teacher, individual and household factors reveals that children’s scores differ considerably in relation to the district where the school is located (in Ticino there are 9 districts, each of which is a geographical area with its own inspector who is responsible for the quality of teaching), the family socioeconomic status, the nationality and the age of the pupil and the Math’s grade given by the teacher. While factors such as the school’s size, the urban/rural location of the community, the attendance of a multi-class, the teacher’s and the pupil’s gender exert a significant effect only on a part of the competencies that have been considered, class size, seems to be overall irrelevant.

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