NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Students Failing To Learn Basic Math Skills

September 5, 2002

Just this week, the Brookings Institution released a report saying weakening math skills have been observed nationally on federal tests.

The decline has coincided with a 1989 recommendation by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics that schools should move more quickly to advanced problem-solving skills used in geometry and algebra -- rather than spending too much time on basic arithmetic.

Although students' problem-solving skills seem to be improving, their understanding of basic math appears to have suffered.

  • Scores on a national test that emphasizes mental computation are either flat or declining.
  • Some scores dropped sharply, including 17-year-olds' ability to handle fractions.
  • In Iowa, students' scores on both problem-solving and arithmetic had been rising through the 1980s -- but by 1992, scores on arithmetic began declining.

Most disturbing are the drops among eighth grade students preparing to learn algebra and geometry.

It has been suggested that students be denied use of their calculators for solving simple math problems.

Of greater importance, perhaps, is development of an early-warning system to detect a fall-off in math proficiency, some educators suggest.

Source: Editorial, "Erosion of Basic Math Skills Hinders Students' Progress," USA Today, September 5, 2002; Tom Loveless, "The 2002 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning," September 2002, Brookings Institution.

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