Study: Reform math doesn't help scores

Early results show no detectable difference in PSSA outcomes

By Genevieve Marshall
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania)
June 14, 2005 Tuesday

The math curricula that the Bethlehem Area School District adopted in the late 1990s in its middle and high schools has not significantly improved state test scores as educators hoped it would, according to preliminary results of a multi-district study.

Researchers from the Greater Philadelphia Secondary Math Project on Monday gave school directors their first look at early results of a yearlong study comparing the achievements of this year's seniors in honors math, who had a choice between a traditional and a reform math program starting in ninth grade.

Bethlehem switched several years ago to a reform math curriculum that combines various math disciplines, from algebra to discrete mathematics, and uses a constructivist approach to teaching. A reform math curriculum, Connected Math, also was adopted in the district's four middle schools.

The change alarmed some parents, who were confused by the long word problems children were bringing home for math homework. Instead of teaching students to practice math exercises and memorize formulas, the reform math programs emphasize problem solving and group learning.

Last year, Joseph Merlino, the principal investigator and project director, hired six independent researchers with a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to document the impact of reform math on test scores in 10 school districts, including Bethlehem Area, Quakertown Community and Pennridge.

Bethlehem's study mainly examined the honors students' scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, given every year in the fifth, eighth and 11th grade.

On average, the honors students who opted to take the Core-Plus program -- the reform math curriculum taught to all other students in both high schools -- had no detectable difference in their 11th-grade math PSSA scores than the honors students in traditional math.

Final results, which won't be ready for several months, also will look at student scores on the SAT, New Standards Reference Exam and transcripts, said Steven Kramer, a researcher affiliated with LaSalle University.

The district's data shows that honors precalculus students at Liberty High School did significantly better on the PSSA, with 97 percent of scoring in the advanced or proficient categories, compared with 71 percent in honors reform math.

Liberty also had a large gap in the mean grade point average between the two groups -- 3.72 for reform math versus 4.02 for traditional math -- and mean math SAT scores -- 572 for reform versus 632 for traditional.

But Freedom High School had almost no gap in PSSA scores, a 10-point difference in SAT scores and a better mean GPA for reform math students -- 4.23 versus 4.04 -- leading school officials to believe that higher-achieving students chose the traditional program over the reform program at Liberty.

School Director Loretta Leeson said that kind of reasoning made her skeptical. "I think as a parent I would go for the program with the higher SAT score," she said.

The district also mailed surveys to 3,848 recent high school graduates about their math experience in high school and how it prepared them for college math. About 13 percent responded.

According to many students who graduated within the last four years, the Core-Plus reform program didn't do much to ready them for the rigors of college mathematics.

"Although I did well in my high school math courses, they did not prepare me for college," wrote one reform math student. Another wrote: "I disagree with the program, it was not the teachers."

As a result of the study and survey, district officials are planning a pilot program that will give some freshmen in the academic track next year the chance to take a traditional math sequence, from algebra to precalculus, which has not been offered to non-honors students in several years.

Julie Victory, the district's supervisor of mathematics, said the pilot program will use a traditional teaching approach and a more distinct curriculum with algebra and some geometry being taught in the first year, and geometry with some algebra in the second year.

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