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Education Reporter

Tied with Latvia for 27th Place
More Math Bad News: U.S. Lags In Two New Comparisons
Two respected international tests of math skills indicate that U.S. students continue to perform poorly compared to other industrialized countries, according to reports released in December.

American 15-year-olds ranked 24th among 29 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsored one of the studies, using tests administered in 2003 by the Program for International Student Assessment. In a larger group that also included 10 non-members - many of them developing countries - the U.S. tied Latvia for 27th place.

One-quarter of the U.S. 15-year-olds scored at or below the bottom rung, while only 2% scored in the top rung of the six-point scale. The gap between whites and Asians versus Hispanics and blacks remains enormous. The top math scorers were Hong Kong, Finland and South Korea. The test also covered reading, science, and problem-solving skills.

No lack of self-esteem 
Only a generation ago, U.S. high school students ranked number one overall. (Wall Street Journal, 12-15-04) Now, they show confidence but not skill: The same test found that U.S. 15-year-olds were far more likely to say they were good at mathematics and received strong grades in that subject than their peers in Japan and South Korea, who on average easily outperformed Americans in math.

A test by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study found mixed results in 2003 compared to 1999 for American 4th- and 8th-graders on math and science tests, but it was clear that they still lag behind a number of industrialized countries. Singapore students led the pack in math and science in both 4th and 8th grades.

Of the 45 countries ranked in the 8th-grade survey, the U.S. was 15th in math and 9th in science. Of the 25 countries in the 4th-grade survey, the U.S. was 12th in math and 6th in science. Singapore has 44% of its students at the advanced level, while the U.S. has 7%. U.S. 4th- and 8th-graders made no progress in math since the last such test was given four years earlier.

This study was released by the International Study Center at Boston College and was analyzed by the National Center for Education Statistics. It included about 9,000 American 8th-graders in 230 schools and 10,000 4th-graders in 250 schools. The results indicated some narrowing of the test-score gap between blacks and whites.

NAEP math test too easy? 
Both studies mentioned above seem at variance with previous announcements that math scores for 4th- and 8th-graders were up on the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress last year. But Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution asserts that those scores are improving because the test is "extraordinarily easy."

In a report issued in November, he wrote that almost 40% of the questions on the 8th-grade version address skills taught in the 1st or 2nd grade. Too many problems rely on whole numbers instead of fractions, decimals and percentages, he argued.

The Loveless report also found that only 22% of 252 surveyed middle-school math teachers had majored in math in college, and only 41% had teaching certificates in math.

Among U.S. college freshmen who plan to major in science or engineering, one in five requires remedial math courses, according to the National Science Board, an arm of the National Science Foundation. Enrollment by American students in graduate science and engineering programs dropped 10% between 1994 and 2001. Enrollment of foreign students grew 35%.

Singapore math more thorough 
Singapore's and Japan's consistently high performance on international math tests has spurred some U.S. school districts to import math curricula from those countries (see Education Reporter, Dec. 2004). Singapore's elementary school curriculum covers only a third of the topics typically found in U.S. textbooks, but the material is taught much more thoroughly and students develop significantly better computation skills.

Both rote learning and visual tools are important in the Singapore approach. By grades 7 and 8, the pupils are doing high school-level algebra. The Singapore curriculum is already producing better test scores in the North Middlesex, MA school district, which began incorporating it in 2000. (Wall Street Journal, 12-13-04)

Meanwhile, traditional American math books by John Saxon, which were popular in many states including California before they were discarded in favor of "new-new-math" texts, are turning up in Asian locations such as the Philippines, reports columnist Linda Schrock Taylor. (LewRockwell.com, 12-16-04). Newer versions of the Saxon texts being sold in this country by the current publisher, Harcourt Achieve, apparently have moved closer to "new-new-math." (LewRockwell.com, 1-10-05) John Saxon is no longer alive to approve the changes.

'Anti-racist math' flops 
Critics of trendy, non-rigorous math curricula found new ammunition in January in the case of the Newton, MA school district. The Boston suburb has seen its state math test scores drop for several years, and administrators have expressed puzzlement. It turns out that between 1999 and 2001 the district adopted an "anti-racist multicultural math" curriculum. In 2001 administrators defined the new top priority for teaching math as "Respect for Human Differences."

The curriculum guidelines continue, "Students will:

  • Consistently analyze their experiences and the curriculum for bias and discrimination;
  • Take effective anti-bias action when bias or discrimination is identified;
  • Work with people of different backgrounds and tell how the experience affected them;
  • Demonstrate how their membership in different groups has advantages and disadvantages that affect how they see the world and the way they are perceived by others . . . ." (townonline.com, 1-12-05)

With those priorities for a math curriculum, is it any wonder the Newton students are falling behind in math?

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