NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 2, 2004

Although the math skills of U.S. public school students have risen for more than a decade, a new study suggests that the progress is in trivial mathematics, says Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center of Education.

Given periodically to thousands of students nationwide, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests have become a key barometer used by educators and policymakers to judge the basic skills of U.S. students. Since the 1990s, scores have risen rapidly. In fact, fourth-graders last year scored high enough to nearly match the skill level of sixth-graders in 1990.

But Loveless says the test is "completely dominated" by questions involving whole numbers, suggesting that students are "probably not sophisticated at all in their proficiency." For example:

  • Some 90.7 percent of the problem-solving arithmetic items on the eighth-grade NAEP involve concepts commonly taught in the fifth grade.
  • Most of the items categorized as "algebra" don't require facility with fractions.

Loveless also criticizes the training that most middle-school math teachers receive, saying it should focus more on subject-area knowledge and less on teaching methods and state standards. School districts should focus on training the 25 percent of teachers who badly need content-area help.

Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics agrees, adding that the council has recommended "extended study" for particular content areas. But, she says, teachers also need training in teaching methods.

Source: Greg Toppo, "Study Says Students" Math Proficiency Doesn't Add Up," USA Today, November 17, 2004; based upon: Tom Loveless, "Trends in Math Achievement: The Importance of Basic Skills," Brookings Institution, February 6, 2003.

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