Indiana schools are making huge strides in teaching students the type of math required for careers in science, engineering and information technology—jobs coveted by economic development leaders.
But education experts point to stagnant test scores on national math exams as confirmation that many students still are not excelling, or are not even proficient, in the subject.
“We do some things well in math, no question,” said Tony Bennett, Indiana superintendent of public instruction. “But there’s more work to be done.”
Scores released Oct. 14 for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test taken by fourth- and eighth-graders, show Hoosier students performed better than the national average in mathematics.
Yet the results show little improvement from previous years. Average math scores were 243 for fourth-graders, a two-point decline, and 287 for eighth-graders, a two-point increase.
In fourth grade, 42 percent of Indiana’s students scored at the proficient level. In grade eight, 36 percent did.
“I would say, generally speaking, that math instruction everywhere in the United States is not as strong as we need it to be and certainly, relative to our global competitors, it’s not,” said Anne Shane, vice president of the local BioCrossroads life sciences initiative.
Indiana students indeed are outperforming international peers in some areas, according to a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
Russ Whitehurst spoke at the Indiana Math Summit in June hosted by the Indiana Department of Education. He argued that Hoosier elementary and middle school students do extremely well solving formulaic math computations critical to those science, engineering and IT careers.
So much so that, if Indiana were its own country, it would rank sixth in the world in that area of math. Whitehurst arrived at his conclusion by taking scores from exams such as the Indiana Statewide Testing for Education Progress and comparing them to scores on the Trends in International Math and Science Study.
In 2007, the most recent year in which TIMSS was administered, 48 countries participated, including the U.S. American students as a whole ranked 24th.
“The evidence is that Indiana is doing better than a lot of countries and the U.S. overall,” Whitehurst said. “That’s a good thing for Indiana.”
Still, only 71 percent of Hoosier students passed the math portion of ISTEP taken in the spring.
Indiana’s shortcomings may be even more pronounced when it comes to thinking mathematically, or applying the kinds of basic skills involved in solving real-world math problems.
For instance, Whitehurst argued that students in the United States might know algebra but lack the mathematical foundation necessary to figure out how much square footage of carpet is needed in a room.
Those types of story problems are more prevalent in the Programme for International Student Assessment test taken by 15-year-olds every three years. Sixty-six countries, including the United States, participated this year.
According to the 2006 results, the United States ranked 25th among 30 developed countries.
But should basic math command as much attention in the classroom as more advanced math? That’s a hot topic in the international mathematics community, said Whitehurst, who thinks both are equally important.
“Mathematicians in this country will say that the kind of applied problems that students are required to solve on an international test involve a low level of mathematics,” he said. “They prefer the kind of school mathematics that would get you ready to take calculus in college rather than middle- and high-school mathematics.”
Bill Walker has followed math trends for several years, first as a high school math teacher and now as executive director of the Indiana Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (ISTEM) Resource Network in West Lafayette. Walker founded the not-for-profit two years ago, hoping to make Indiana a leader in the STEM disciplines.
Overall, he thinks Indiana is making strides in math but said Indiana teachers sometimes are hamstrung by having to spend too much time “teaching to the ISTEP test.”
“Is Indiana making efforts and strides toward using engineering and technology applications in instruction and working to better prepare students in the STEM disciplines?” he asked. “I would say yes. But I would also say we have a lot to do.”
Part of that involves arming students, who have no intention of pursuing a high-tech career, with those basic math skills. The state Department of Education’s strategy focuses on reading, math and developing alternative paths for those students, Bennett said.•