Math scores targeted for improvement

A task force trying to improve Maryland's lagging math scores will propose this month significantly boosting time spent on math for students and their teachers, and restoring a greater emphasis on computation skills.

The group will discourage school systems from making high school algebra the norm for eighth-graders, which has been under consideration in many school systems.


The recommendations are being prepared as the "math wars" of the 1990s - similar to a long-standing debate over how to teach reading - appear to be dying down with a swing away from stressing concepts and calculators at the expense of basic computation skills.

"This doesn't replace thinking," said Francis "Skip" Fennell, the Western Maryland College professor and chairman of the task force. "The fact is, [technology] is an important tool to help you learn mathematics, but children need paper and pencils, too."


Some of the most significant recommendations expected to be made by the committee include requiring that high school students take math all four years instead of the three now required and that students in all grades receive an average of an hour of math instruction each day.

"The last thing I want to do is pull the [reading] train off the track, but math is pretty important, too," Fennell said, referring to the extensive state effort in the past three years to boost reading scores. "We see elementary teachers who spend only 20 or 30 minutes on math instruction and then spend 2 1/2 hours on reading."

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick appointed the 35-member group, which includes teachers, school administrators, college professors and business representatives, at the start of this school year amid growing concern about the state's lagging math scores.

The group's recommendations will go to the state board, which generally does not require curriculum changes in local school systems but has a strong and growing influence over such matters.

Since 1996, third-grade math scores on Maryland's annual exams have been virtually unchanged, and fifth-grade scores have dropped. Only eighth-graders have made gains in that time. , U.S. high school students fare badly compared with those in most other industrialized countries.

The task force also has identified as a major problem the persistent gap in math achievement between white students and black students. At all three grade levels, the percentages of white students scoring satisfactory on the math portion of Maryland's annual exams is more than double the percentages of black students scoring satisfactory.

A short preview of the group's recommendations was offered at last month's state school board meeting. The group's final report is scheduled to be presented at the state board's next meeting June 20 and 21.

The task force will call for middle school math teachers to have their own certification rather than merely be teachers with general certification for any subjects in kindergarten through eighth grade. That recommendation also was made recently by a state task force charged with improving middle schools.


On the elementary school level, the task force has been reluctant to recommend the kind of sweeping changes in teacher training that were recently made for reading, including a requirement that teachers seeking recertification take additional courses in how to teach reading.

"The reading-course requirements already take up a lot of time," said Virginia H. Pilato, chief of the state education department's program approval and assessment branch. "Every subject area would want to recommend more required courses for elementary teachers in their subjects, but there isn't enough time. Reading is fundamental to everything, so that's why it makes sense."

Nevertheless, the task force is seeking to create a math specialist position for elementary schools, somewhat similar to the reading specialist position in many schools. That recommendation is causing concern because of the expense of hiring more teachers.

"The elementary math specialist is a good idea. The elementary reading specialist is a good idea," said state school board member John Wisthoff. "The only problem with those jobs is that they're vulnerable at budget time."

The task force has tried to steer clear of the battle between math programs that emphasize learning basic skills such as addition and multiplication tables and those that emphasize math concepts and processes.

During the 1990s, many schools across the country shifted toward stressing thinking about math processes and concepts instead of focusing on finding the correct answers to problems. That provoked a rebellion among thousands of parents and mathematicians.


This year, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the nation's leading organization of math educators, issued a new set of math guidelines calling for more emphasis on basic skills computation. Maryland's task force is following that model closely.

"You don't use the horror stories to undo the good things that have been done," said Gary Martin of the national group. "The truth is that the math curriculum has never worked for most students. If it did, I wouldn't to go an auditorium to speak, say that I'm a math teacher and be met by groans.

"We have to get down to what's good for kids."

The task force will recommend that algebraic concepts be emphasized throughout all grade levels. But it has concluded that the rush to get more students to take calculus by the end of 12th grade shouldn't translate into pushing all eighth-graders into automatically taking high school algebra.

"The taking of the first course called algebra is not the answer for all students," Fennell said. "It may be for some, but it's too easy to shove down the high school course to eighth grade."

Grasmick has indicated that she supports the task force's work and has asked it to continue as an advisory committee to her, a step she has rarely taken for other such state task forces.