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State Ranks Near Bottom on Math Skills Test

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The nation’s schools received an upbeat report card in math Thursday, but the bad news continued for California as its fourth-graders lagged behind their peers in 40 states and came out ahead of only those in Mississippi.

California eighth-graders performed somewhat better but still ranked behind students in 32 states in the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress, an arm of the federal government that monitors academic achievement.

The test found that 54% of California’s fourth-graders are not mastering essential basic skills such as measuring something longer than a ruler. Nationally, 36% of the students fell into that category.

Among the state’s eighth-graders, 49% cannot solve a problem involving money or identify the fraction that represents the shaded portion of a rectangle. Nationwide, the figure was 38%.

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The report also found that only one in 10 of the state’s fourth-graders and one in six of the older students are considered “proficient” in math, a skill level higher than merely mastering the basics.

Those findings are likely to fuel criticism that math “reform” efforts of recent years have not produced gains.

Opponents of the “reform” philosophy complain that it does not pay enough attention to basic skills and memorization. Gov. Pete Wilson joined in that view Thursday, saying the results were “deplorable and intolerable” and point up the need “now more than ever to teach basic computational math skills in the classroom.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin responded to the poor showing by renewing her call for academic standards that would be both demanding and mandatory, as well as statewide tests to monitor student performance and a system of rewards and sanctions.

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Those standards and tests are being developed but are still several years away. Eastin said most states that have those policies, such as Texas, North Carolina and Kentucky, have made substantial gains.

“Absent a clear set of standards, many districts don’t know what they’re supposed to do to improve,” Eastin said, and the state has no way of keeping track of performance.

Forty-three states, the District of Columbia and the island of Guam participated in the fourth-grade testing program, which has monitored trends in academic achievement among public and private school students since the 1970s. Some jurisdictions did not test all grade levels. Forty states participated in the eighth-grade testing program.

Relative to most other states, California had high a percentage of students whose native language is not English--13% of the sample--and a high percentage of poor students, who constituted 25% of the students tested.

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But it was unclear how the demographics of California’s students affected the outcomes. California’s poor students in the fourth grade ranked last compared to similar pupils elsewhere. The state’s higher-income students, represented by those whose parents graduated from college, did slightly better but were still 35th out of 43 states.

California students also ranked low regardless of ethnic group--with white students among the lowest-scoring white students and African American, Latino and Asian American students among the lowest-scoring members of those groups as well.

Nationally, students in grades four, eight and 12 extended a six-year streak during which the percentage of pupils mastering basic mathematics skills has risen rapidly. The percentage of fourth-graders functioning at a basic level or above rose from 59% to 64% between 1994 and 1996. Eighth- and 12th-graders made similar gains.

Even so, only a quarter of eighth-graders and one in five fourth-graders met the higher criteria of proficiency.

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Those lapses become magnified by the 12th grade, where only 16% of students demonstrated proficiency in math as they prepared to graduate last spring. An analysis by the National Assessment of Educational Progress said, however, that seniors may actually know far more math but, because the outcome didn’t matter to them, lacked the motivation to do well on the test.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said he was generally encouraged by the “solid progress” measured by the test that is known informally as the nation’s report card.

“These results are another sign that we are turning the corner when it comes to improving American education,” Riley said.

But he cautioned, “We cannot rest on our laurels. Our national scores may be going up, but we are still far behind world-class standards.”

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The 41-nation Third International Math and Science Study, issued last November, found that U.S. eighth-graders were below world averages in mathematics achievement. Since then, President Clinton has been campaigning for national academic standards and a test that would enable parents to see how their students, states and school districts measure up. The National Assessment of Educational Progress samples students and does not produce scores for individuals or districts.

“The scores are getting better, but they also show us why every child should be tested,” Clinton told a group of business leaders in Washington. He added that all students should take algebra in the eighth grade rather than waiting until high school.

The content of the NAEP test is based on a set of criteria for math courses issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989. Those standards aimed to move instruction away from rote memorization of formulas and toward understanding how mathematics works, away from routine problems and toward more complex “real world” ones.

To determine whether students were gaining that type of understanding, almost half of the 1996 NAEP test consisted of questions requiring students to explain their reasoning. Students in all three grades were allowed to use calculators, rulers, protractors and geometric shapes to help them work out solutions.

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A survey of U.S. eighth-grade math teachers conducted as part of last fall’s international study found that most American teachers were aware of techniques promoted by the teachers organization for increasing understanding. These include having students work in small groups to “discover” math concepts, assigning them projects instead of routine work sheets and requiring them to present their thinking on their work to their classmates.

But experts who watched videotapes of those teachers’ classrooms concluded that American students were receiving very little exposure to challenging mathematical ideas.

One California Department of Education official familiar with staff development estimated that only 5% to 15% of the state’s elementary school teachers have been trained to teach their students the kinds of skills measured by NAEP. Perhaps as many as one-quarter of eighth-grade teachers have received such training.

Shelley Ferguson, a fourth-grade teacher from Chula Vista and a member of the national Mathematical Sciences Education Board, gave an example of how using concrete examples can help students understand math better--and do better on tests such as the NAEP.

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“If you tell students that one person had 29 apples and someone gave him 36 more and asked whether the total was more or less than 100, most second- and third-graders could tell you it was less,” Ferguson said. “But when students only practice with pencil and paper, they might add those two numbers and get 915 and be very content with that and move on.”

But, she said, teachers “need a lot of professional development to allow them to teach in a way that children understand.”

Math “reform” in California has exploded in controversy in recent years, since the 1992 NAEP report showed that fourth-graders here trailed those in all but five states. At the time, educators said the new teaching methods were not yet being widely used.

In 1995, Eastin formed a task force to analyze the situation and called for more time spent on math and a better balance between computational and analytical skills.

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Times staff writer Greg Norman contributed to this story from Washington.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Math Report Card

California’s students are near the bottom of a state-by-state ranking for math proficiency, as measured by achievement tests given in 43 states in fourth grade and 40 states in eighth grade.

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The lowest-ranked states, with the worst at bottom of list:

4TH GRADE

South Carolina

Alabama

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California (tie)

Louisiana (tie)

Mississippi

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8TH GRADE

California (tie)

Tennessee (tie)

Georgia

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Hawaii

New Mexico

Arkansas

South Carolina

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Alabama

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TROUBLE SIGN

Percentage scoring below basic levels:

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4th Grade

U.S.: 36%

Calif.: 54%

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8th Grade

U.S.: 38%

Calif.: 49%

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Sample question: 17% of fourth-graders nationwide came up with the correct answer of $9 for the problem below.

Sam can purchase his lunch at school. He wants to have juice that costs 50 cents, a sandwich that costs 90 cents and fruit that costs 35 cents. His mother has only $1 bills. What is the least number his mother should give him so that he has enough money to buy lunch for five days?

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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How California Students Ranked

Here is a breakdown of how some subgroups of California students fared among the 43 states participating in the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress report on math skills.

GRADE 4

Ethnicity

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White: 38 of 43

Black: 36 of 36

Latino: 39 of 43

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Parents’ Education Level

Less Than High School: 35 of 35

High School Graduate: 43 of 43

Some College: 41 of 43

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College Degree: 35 of 43

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Income

Eligible for Free/Reduced-Price Lunches: 44 of 44

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Grade 8

White: 20 of 40

Black: 23 of 31

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Latino: 23 of 36

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Parents’ Education Level

Less Than High School: 30 of 39

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High School Graduate: 35 of 40

Some College: 26 of 40

College Degree: 29 of 40

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Income

Eligible for Free/Reduced-Price Lunches: 31 of 40

Note: Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indians not ranked due to insufficient national sample size; some states did not report scores in certain other ethnic categories; Idaho, Kansas, Ohio, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and South Dakota did not participate in the testing program.

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Mathematics Achievement by Region:

GRADE 4

1990

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% Advanced % At or above % At or above % Below basic proficient basic Nation 1% 13% 50% 50% California NA NA NA NA Northeast 2% 14% 51% 49% Southeast 0% 8% 40% 60% Central 1% 14% 55% 45% West 1% 15% 54% 46%

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1992

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% Advanced % At or above % At or above % Below basic proficient basic Nation 2% 18% 59% 41% California 1% 12% 46% 54% Northeast 3% 23% 63% 37% Southeast 1% 11% 48% 52% Central 2% 21% 66% 34% West 2% 17% 59% 41%

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1996

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% Advanced % At or above % At or above % Below basic proficient basic Nation 2% 21% 64% 36% California 1% 11% 46% 54% Northeast 3% 26% 70% 30% Southeast 2% 16% 55% 45% Central 2% 27% 75% 25% West 2% 18% 58% 42%

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GRADE 8

1990

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% Advanced % At or above % At or above % Below basic proficient basic Nation 2% 15% 52% 48% California 2% 12% 45% 55% Northeast 3% 20% 59% 41% Southeast 1% 12% 43% 57% Central 2% 15% 57% 43% West 2% 15% 50% 50%

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1992

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% Advanced % At or above % At or above % Below basic proficient basic Nation 3% 21% 58% 42% California 2% 16% 50% 50% Northeast 5% 23% 57% 43% Southeast 2% 15% 50% 50% Central 3% 25% 66% 34% West 3% 21% 58% 42%

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1996

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% Advanced % At or above % At or above % Below basic proficient basic Nation 4% 24% 62% 38% California 3% 17% 51% 49% Northeast 5% 27% 67% 33% Southeast 3% 18% 56% 44% Central 5% 29% 69% 31% West 3% 22% 59% 41%

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Source: National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Education Progress

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