The question comes up from time to time about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) accepting and giving credit for wrong answers provided the student has explained the process they used to get their answer. I have recently had phone calls and emails about this issue from parents and a student teacher.

The student teacher assured me that in her teacher preparation program they are required to have correct answers. This student teacher also indicated she has observed in several elementary classrooms over the past two years and has never heard a teacher say it is okay to have wrong answers.

What is the scoop? Is the Common Core way to allow wrong answers to be okay? Let’s explore this and see what may be behind it.

In Washington State, we have experience with the WASL. The WASL left a bad taste in the mouths of many. It did seem to promote the idea that getting the correct answer was not as important as the process used to get the answer, correct or not, and the ability to explain the process used highly desired.

School district officials around the country and professional development programs related to the Common Core State Standards may be promoting this idea. Here is a short video clip of a school district curriculum director explaining they are more focused on students being able to explain their reasoning and how they came up with their answer.

This video captures the essence of the message. You can watch a lengthier version of this session by clicking here. You can see this in the context of the rest of the presentation as well as the question asked that prompted the response. The question is asked at about the 21:20 point in the 30 minute video.

Are wrong answers okay according to the standards? I encourage you to become familiar with the CCSS math standards document.

I find no place in the math standards document where it says wrong answers are okay. The standards do leave the door open for varying interpretations and people can use the CCSS to support their acceptance of wrong answers if an explanation of the process is provided. Let’s take a look at one place in the standards document that lends itself to people interpreting it this way.

The standards document includes Standards for Mathematical Practice and Standards for Mathematical Content. The Standards for Mathematical Practice are introduced on page six of the math standards document and seem to get more emphasis in professional development programs than the content standards.. There are eight of these process standards and they apply to every grade level.

1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.

3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

4. Model with mathematics.

5. Use appropriate tools strategically.

6. Attend to precision.

7. Look for and make use of structure.

8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Even though other standards here may support the interpretation that wrong answers are okay, let’s take a look at standard 6. Attend to precision. On the surface, this standard would appear to require computational accuracy. One needs to look further and detect the nuance of emphasis in the narrative that gives more info about the meaning of this standard. Here is that narrative:

Mathematically proficient students try to

communicate preciselyto others. They try to use clear definitions indiscussionwith others and in their own reasoning. Theystatethe meaning of the symbols they choose, including using the equal sign consistently and appropriately. They are careful about specifying units of measure, and labeling axes toclarifythe correspondence with quantities in a problem. Theycalculate accurately and efficiently,expressnumerical answers with a degree of precision appropriate for the problem context. In the elementary grades, students givecarefully formulated explanationsto each other. By the time they reach high school they have learned toexamine claimsand makeexplicit use of definitions.

“Calculate accurately and efficiently” doesn’t appear until the beginning of the fifth sentence. The narrative, including the rest of the fifth sentence, emphasizes communicating precisely and gives priority to a student’s ability to communicate and explain. Does that mean wrong answers are okay? Some may interpret it that way even though that is not what it says.

Will the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium* (SBAC) give credit for good explanations when the answer is wrong? Will the SBAC assessments be a WASL on steroids?

Is wrong right as long as you explain? Is right wrong if you don’t explain?

*Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—Washington state is the lead state in this consortium. The consortium is developing the assessment for the Common Core State Standards that will be used in Washington. The executive director of the consortium, Joe Willhoft, is the former Assistant Superintendent for Assessment and Student Information for Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.