Education leaders in Maryland and across the country are looking at their standardized test results, scratching their heads and wondering: What’s going on with math?
New data is forcing them to confront a vexing problem. While reading scores improve, math proficiency remains flat or falls.
The recent release of Maryland’s standardized test scores showed students posted the worst results in math since 2015, the first year the PARCC test was administered. Only a third of Maryland elementary and middle school students passed the math test, a one percentage point drop since last year. State education officials acknowledged the setback and pledged to dig into why.
On another assessment known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” average math scores declined in 2015 for the first time since 1990. There were no significant changes on the most recent exam in 2017.
Last year, math achievement on the ACT college readiness exam hit a 20-year low.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” said David Steiner, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a state school board member.
As much as the issue frustrates school leaders, its root cause remains a mystery.
“It’s one thing to describe data and trends and caution about the decreases — that’s the easy part,” said Wayne Camara, the ACT’s research chair. “The causation issue is much more difficult.”
University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski cautioned a one- or two-point decline is not a “significant trend.”
“What I would say is we’re relatively flat,” he said. “The concern is that we’re not making progress and increasing the number of students coming up to the proficiency level.”
The way math is taught in many states changed with the adoption of Common Core standards, which with the PARCC test is designed to align.
Maryland is ending the PARCC test, but state education officials say it is being replaced by a new standardized test that will be comparably difficult.
The standards in place set a higher bar, with different math skills emphasized than in prior decades. When the first year of PARCC results were published — and met with horror from parents — some leaders cautioned that the test was designed to be hard, and they predicted scores would improve rapidly once teachers adapted to the new material and students learned the new standards.
That largely hasn’t happened.
Steiner and others in the education world have a host of hypotheses for why this might be.
One thing Steiner points to is the way elementary teachers are trained. They tend to be generalists whose courses prepare them to teach all subjects to their young students.
“You might say, ‘Elementary math is easy,’” Steiner said. “No, it isn’t. Setting the foundations for good mathematical understanding is not easy.”
He is part of the state’s Kirwan Commission, tasked with coming up with innovative ways to improve public education in Maryland. Among the group’s recommendations is to require prospective teachers to complete a full year of practical experience in the classroom and to stipulate that elementary teachers have deeper content knowledge in all “core” subjects, including math.
Daniel Chazan, director of the Center for Mathematics Education at the University of Maryland, said the PARCC results suggest it’s time for the state to move forward with the Kirwan recommendations.
The commission’s work has become a political flashpoint. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, recently called the recommendations “half-baked” and “fiscally irresponsible.” Democrats responded by pledging to move forward with finding the billions of dollars in funding needed to make Maryland schools “world class."
“Who do we imagine is going to turn things around? It’s more than just teachers and educators,” Chazan said. “If we were satisfied with status quo, maybe being stagnant wouldn’t be a problem. But are we satisfied? If not, what are we going to do about that?”
Both in Maryland and nationwide, math results worsen as students age. Math instruction builds on concepts established in previous years, so if a student falls behind, it’s especially hard to catch up to grade-level work.
Maryland’s most recent PARCC data shows math scores fell or stayed flat at every level of elementary and middle schools. Results declined more severely in the later grades. Third-graders saw a very slight — 0.2 percentage points — bump since last year, bringing 42.5 percent up to passing. In seventh grade, the proficiency rate dropped by 2 percentage points to 26.6 percent.
There’s a similar pattern on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally mandated test from the U.S. Department of Education known as the Nation’s Report Card.
In fourth grade, 40 percent of students scored proficient in 2015. In eighth grade, 33 percent did. Just 25 percent of high school seniors passed. There were no significant improvements in the most recent test, in 2017.
Meanwhile, reading scores remained relatively flat across grades, with a little over a third of students passing.
“That is, in a nutshell, the problem,” Steiner said. “It’s not only that 40 percent is no good. It’s that, as you get older, you get worse.”
Experts also question whether the curriculum schools use is truly aligned to the rigorous standards students are being tested on.
Baltimore County’s new school superintendent said he would be “completely overhauling our math curriculum” after seeing the PARCC results. Math scores in his district took one of the largest nose dives in the state: 26.5 percent of its students passed the math test in elementary and middle school, a nearly 4 percentage point drop.
Within the dour news, there were some brights spots offering a path forward for math instruction.
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UMBC partners with a number of Baltimore City schools to improve the way math is taught and learned. Across the district, PARCC scores remained flat at about 14 percent, but at the half-dozen schools partnered with UMBC scores increased an average of 5 percent each year, said Josh Michael of UMBC’s Sherman STEM Teachers Scholars Program.
The college helps elementary and middle school teachers deeply analyze individual students’ math data. They’re working to pinpoint students’ trouble spots and design personalized methods for helping them catch up.
Too often, Michael said, elementary school teachers are put in the position of having to teach one lesson to a large group of students.
“We’re bringing more specificity to the work,” Hrabowski said.
People also need to work on changing their attitudes about math, he said.
When Hrabowski talks to people about the stagnant math scores in Maryland, inevitably someone responds by saying, “Well, some people just aren’t good at math.”
In a job market increasingly reliant on math and science skills, Hrabowski refuses to accept that: “That’s just not true.”