Progress stalls on national, state math scores

October 15, 2009

New math scores show fourth-graders have made no gains on a national basis since 2007, the first time in two decades they have failed to improve. Eighth-graders advanced only slightly.

Indiana’s fourth and eighth graders again outscored the national average in mathematics on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, but the results show little improvement by Indiana students over previous years.

The NAEP is the only ongoing national assessment that measures U.S. students’ academic proficiency in various subject areas over time.

National education officials called the results troubling, even though it is impossible to know from one test whether progress over the long term has stalled.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett said state results reinforce his proposals to improve teacher quality. Bennett wants teaching candidates to spend fewer hours on the methodology of teaching while spending more time on content courses, such as math and science. He'd also like to lower the barriers for career changers who have significant skills in subjects like math or biology but less training in education.

The NAEP is a series of federally funded achievement tests often referred to as the nation's report card. Students are tested in nine subjects, but they are tested most often in math and reading (the next reading scores should be released next year). Generally, students have been making more progress in math than in reading.

This year, on a 500-point scale, fourth-graders on average nationally scored 240 in math, unchanged from two years ago. Eighth-graders on average scored 283, up slightly from 281 two years ago.

The scores put 39 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders at the proficient level, meaning they show the knowledge and skills they should have at that grade.

That, in turn, means that millions of kids are a long way off from meeting the goal of the No Child Left Behind law championed by former President George W. Bush, which is that every student can read and do math at their grade level by 2014.

"We're clearly not requiring enough of our math teachers," said David Driscoll, chairman of the board that oversees the tests and a former education commissioner in Massachusetts.

Teachers lack training even in his state, which posted the highest scores in math. When Massachusetts beefed up the math portion of the elementary teacher test in 2007, 55 percent of teachers failed, he said.

And yet teachers are crucial to learning. Driscoll noted that eighth graders whose teachers majored in math scored 9 points higher than other kids on this year's test.

In Indiana, average math scores were 243 for fourth-graders and 287 for eighth-graders. The fourth grade score was down two points from 2007 and the eighth-grade score was up two points. In fourth grade, 42 percent of Indiana’s students scored at the proficient level. In grade eight, 36 percent scored at the proficient level.

"This is another measuring stick and more evidence that we aren’t doing enough to improve all students’ academic achievement,” Bennett said in a prepared statement. “To be competitive, our schools need to raise the bar for student success and place a greater focus on academics.  Since January, we’ve introduced reforms aimed at improving student success; but these results remind us that we urgently need to do more for Hoosier students.”

Indiana students outscored 21 other states or jurisdictions in both grade levels.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the national results mean "the status quo isn't good enough."

"These NAEP results are a call to action for reforms that will prepare our students to compete in the global economy," Duncan said.

According to the results:

— Just four states and the District of Columbia managed to show improvement in both fourth and eighth grades. The states are Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

— Three states saw improvement in fourth grade only; they are Colorado, Kentucky and Maryland. Ten states saw improvement in eighth grade only; they are Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.

— In four states, scores actually dropped among fourth-graders; they are Delaware, Indiana, West Virginia and Wyoming.

In addition, there was no progress from 2007 to 2009 in closing the gap between minority and white students in either grade, though the gap has narrowed somewhat since the 1990s. Black and Hispanic students did make gains at eighth grade, but the gap persisted because white students improved, too.

Experts say this divide, considered one of the toughest challenges in education, is driven by deeply rooted factors. More minority children live in poverty and in broken homes, which is linked to an array of problems that interfere with learning.

Another reason the gap has persisted is demographics — white children made up about 75 percent of students tested in the 1990s but today make up less than 60 percent.

Private school students continue to outperform those in public schools, according to the scores. Private school math scores were 7 points better in fourth grade and 14 points better in eighth grade.

Internationally, U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders have kept improving in math and have gained on some of their toughest competitors. But the most recent tests were done in 2007 and won't be administered again until 2011.

This year's NAEP math tests were given to 168,800 fourth-graders and 161,700 eighth-graders in public and private schools in every state.



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