Drop in math scores adds up, state officials say

The dramatic drop in test scores in math this year came down to one simple equation, according to state officials: If you don't teach students material, they won't be able to answer questions about it on a test.

Maryland has adopted a new curriculum, called the common core, but is using the old Maryland School Assessment while new tests are developed. This school year, while parts of the common core were being implemented, students might not have learned what they were being tested on.

Greater differences exist between the new and old math standards than the new and old language arts standards. School leaders suggested that that is why scores dropped more in math on the tests, which are given to students in third through eighth grades.

Donna Watts, mathematics coordinator for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the math drop might have been more pronounced in middle schools than elementary schools, because about 65 percent of middle school math teachers were certified as elementary teachers. Therefore, they don't necessarily have the same expertise and depth of knowledge in math that they should.

"They are going to go further in math than they have ever gone before," she said.

Under the common core, the teaching of math is cumulative and builds on what was taught the year before. The order in which topics are taught is being moved around among grade levels, so students might not do as well, according to Watts.

For instance, she said, statistics used to be taught in third, fourth and fifth grades. Now it isn't taught until seventh and eighth grade. The volume of rectangular prisms used to be taught in sixth grade, and now it is taught in fifth grade. Students used to study unit rates, such as figuring out miles per gallon, in seventh grade; that topic is now moved to sixth grade.

And those circle graphs that we all know as pie charts won't be taught at all in the new curriculum. So if a student encounters one on an old test, it might create trouble.

Some school officials said they were worried that state education officials had scoffed at those who predicted trouble when the new curriculum began being used in the 2012-2013 school year. A year ago, they said the new curriculum was so much harder that students would surely do better on state tests, even if the tests weren't perfectly matched with the new curriculum. It turns out, state Superintendent Lillian Lowery acknowledged this week, that those predictions were optimistic.

"Needless to say, it is kind of disturbing," state school board member S. James Gates, a University of Maryland physics professor, said of the math declines. It is something "I will ponder for a very long time."

The new tests won't be in place until the 2014-2015 school year.


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