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.