American Students Still Deficient in Math

By Carla Albers

The Gazette
Colorado Springs
Dec. 16, 2003


American students still deficient in math

On Nov. 14, The Gazette published a story about the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test results titled "State students outscore most on tests" and suggested that Colorado students got high marks in math. Although this test showed some gains by our students, a more careful reading of the story and other materials would suggest that the state of math achievement in this state and country is not good.

The story notes that 77 percent of fourth graders are now at a "basic" level in math, as are 68 percent of eighth graders. However, the story also noted that less that one third of the children tested are considered proficient in math. In other words, two thirds of the kids tested in Colorado are not proficient on this test. And, while there have been gains, it is useful to put those gains in context.

A review of a Brookings Institute report, the Brown Center Report on American Education for 2000, contains an indepth look at the state of mathematics achievement in the United States. In discussing the NAEP gains in math, the report refers to the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which was given in several countries in the mid-1990s. At the rate of improvement seen on NAEP, the report notes that "it would take a little more than eighty-three years before American eighth-graders were performing at a level equal to their Japanese counterparts" pursuant to the TIMSS results.

Many new textbooks being used in math classes today are aligned with the 1989 National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM) standards. While these standards stressed increased attention to critical thinking and cooperative learning, they recommended decreased attention in grades K-4 to complex paper-pencil computations, long division, paper and pencil fraction computation, rote practice, rote memorization of rules and teaching by telling. In other words, calculators were to be encouraged over the ability to do computations by hand.

Everyday Mathematics, the curriculum used at our elementary school, is aligned to NCTM standards. Its introductory letter states that it is based on research results and field-test experience, though the scientific validity of those tests remains open to question.

Another statement in the Everyday Math introductory letter notes that the kids will have "frequent practice using games as an alternative to tedious drills." Drilling basic math facts is not seen as an essential area of instruction under this program. Further down, it is noted that kids will "invent individual procedures and algorithms." However, as one mathematician has noted, it has taken thousands of years and hundreds of math geniuses to develop the body of mathematics we teach to kids K-12. The question, then, is can we really expect our third or fourth graders to "invent" a relevant or useful math algorithm?

Should parents be concerned? While some educators have praised cooperative learning (kids teaching kids) and use of calculators, many university mathematicians have serious concerns over the lack of competence our children have in basic arithmetic skills. As noted in the above referenced Brookings report, if a child doesn't master arithmetic, it is going to be difficult for that child to move on to algebra and other higher level math. Parents need to see what curriculum their school is using and determine whether or not their kids are being taught the basics if we hope to see significant gains in math achievement.

Carla Albers
Colorado Springs

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