If bad teachers are the problem, why are kids gaining in math? asks cognitive scientist Dan Willingham. His answer: Higher standards backed by stronger curricula.

While reading scores have been flat for 20 years, math scores are up significantly. That’s true for fourth graders, who have the same teachers for reading and math.

States that aligned standards, assessments and accountability show the largest math gains, he writes.

Still, high standards are likely necessary but not sufficient to move student achievement. Standards set the goals, but they don’t tell you how to get there. For that, you need a curriculum. It may be that developing a curriculum to meet standards is easier in mathematics than in English; there is little controversy as to the subject matter to be covered, and the order in which one ought to tackle subjects is more obvious.

While we need “a more sensible method to usher hapless teachers out of the profession” and better teacher training, we also need to focus on curriculum design, Willingham writes.

I find this article interesting, but one line really makes me wonder:

“States that aligned standards, assessments and accountability show the largest math gains”

By “math gains” he means increased test scores. Does anyone besides me wonder if increased test scores automatically means math skills have improved? Are there other measures of math skills other than this one test? Are kids now more capable on this math assessment, yet now less capable in other ways?

I’m not saying he’s wrong, I just wonder about these kinds of reports. Do standardized test scores always demonstrate whether learning is improving, or do they sometimes just demonstrate that some schools are getting better at preparing the kids for the test?

Could this also be the reason that reading scores have remained flat–that English curricula haven’t been so quick to align or teach to a test?