2 + 2 = NAEP

Students are scoring better on national math tests, but the exam is too easy, a new study argues. On both the fourth and eighth grade version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, about 40 percent of questions deal with skills taught in first or second grade, according to Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings.

The central fault, Loveless contends, is that too many problem-solving questions rely on whole numbers, with too few challenges involving fractions, decimals and percentages. Such instruction sets students up for trouble in more advanced high school classes and in daily life, where tasks such as shopping and measuring rarely involve neat, round numbers, he said.

“If we want kids to be sophisticated problem solvers, they’ve got to be able to think beyond whole numbers,” Loveless said. “That’s just not good enough.”

The study compares questions on NAEP’s 2003 test with grade levels in Singapore math textbooks.

Loveless said he chose that program because of its clarity and strong international reputation, and he said it compared well to the math-class sequences used in states such as California and North Carolina.

But using Singapore as a model presents skewed results, said Sharif Shakrani, deputy executive director of the assessment governing board. Math is taught differently in that country, with heavy concentration on computation early before other topics are introduced. U.S. schools go for breadth, he said, with more math skills to cover each year.

Overall, he said, the questions on the national in fourth grade and eighth grade are commensurate with what’s being taught in those grades.

“I contend that if we do what he suggests, moving to much more complex skills, it would be akin to giving a test in Russian,” Shakrani said. “We already are not doing well. If you increase the cognitive function of the math concepts and the way you test them, you will end up with scores so low you will not be able to make sense of the results.”

In other words, Singapore children can learn skills in first and second grade that American children can’t learn till fourth or eighth grade. Or never.

On a happy note, the ninth grader I’m tutoring this year got 89 percent on an algebra test. He’d been flunking the class. Of course, this happened after I missed a week to go to New York. I saw he’d successfully answered just the sort of question he seemed clueless about a few weeks earlier. I can’t tell if my absence was the magic that turned him around. But he asked me to help him with English this week. He’d already finished the math homework — correctly.

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Comments

  1. “A leader of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the test content, strongly disagreed with the findings, saying the study is flawed because it is based on a questionable formula of what kids should know when.”

    Questionable? Not by practicing mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. Questionable only by progressive Ed School teachers who don’t have a clue about math.

    “But using Singapore as a model presents skewed results, said Sharif Shakrani, deputy executive director of the assessment governing board. Math is taught differently in that country, with heavy concentration on computation early before other topics are introduced. U.S. schools go for breadth, he said, with more math skills to cover each year.”

    Math is taught correctly in that country. Breadth? Singapore Math is vastly superior in all categories than any NCTM-type math program. I’m not sure what kind of silly nonsense he calls “breadth … with more math skills…”? Tangrams and patterns?

    “I contend that if we do what he suggests, moving to much more complex skills, it would be akin to giving a test in Russian,” Shakrani said. “We already are not doing well. If you increase the cognitive function of the math concepts and the way you test them, you will end up with scores so low you will not be able to make sense of the results.”

    “… increase the cognitive function …” He is trying to sound like he knows what he is talking about. Translated, it means make the test harder than a simple test of very basic knowledge. (How many fourths in a whole? – fourth grade) Perhaps they won’t be able to make sense of the results because all they teach in the US is a pathetically simple level of math knowledge and skills. So, it’s not a matter of breadth versus depth, it’s a matter of simple versus rigorous; a matter of low expectations versus high expectations; a matter of what progressive Ed Schools want versus what mathematicians, engineers, and scientists want. NCTM math is supposed to teach understanding and problem solving skills, but he is saying that you cannot increase the cognitive function of the math concepts that are tested, as in Singapore Math. Is he hoping that the readers are so bad at math that they cannot put two and two together?

    Sharif Shakrani is defending the test by saying that it has to reflect what is taught in the US. He admits that they could not possibly expect kids to know what is taught in Singapore Math. He tries to side-step the issue of low expectations by blaming it on “breadth”. The report, however, uses the comparison to show how poorly math is taught in the US. The test is not the issue. The math (or lack thereof) being taught in US schools is.

    All parents should go to the NAEP web site and look at the sample questions and results to see what they expect kids to know. Parents need to realize that even if a school gets high marks in their state testing, it doesn’t mean that their children are getting a good education. Look at the tests. Look at the questions. Look at the results.

  2. I read NTCM’s magazine “Teaching Mathematics” and I am frequently amazed at the articles that describe classroom teaching techniques and teacher-designed projects that contain a peppering of math here and there. Classroom teaching seems to be all about engaging the students by entertaining.

    I find that parents are happy if their kids are being entertained and getting passing grades. If they really looked at what they are learning as compared to what they could be learning, they’d ask for more bang for their buck. However, I don’t have any faith that most parents will even glance at this article.

    BTW, I have used Singapore Math with my kids and my 2nd grader indeed is doing more advanced work than his public school 4th grade friends. My 1st grader is more confident in his math facts than the 4th grader too. BUT, they haven’t got to do all those fun “projects” either. I guess they will hate me later for it.

  3. So why doesn’t the US switch to Singapore Math?

  4. Steve LaBonne says:

    I assume that was a rhetorical question? It’s because all the interested parties except the kids would be hurt (and they’re the only party that lacks any power). Teachers would have to have the knowledge and ability to actually teach math instead of fooling around with stupid projects and graphing calculators; idiot ed-school professors and publishers of expensive, useless math texts would be out of work.