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Maryland's math problem

The Baltimore Sun

While Maryland's Education Department is quick to tout the state's latest educational achievements, we're not so likely to hear about our failings. Here is a little secret: Maryland's math achievement is flagging. Maryland is one of the richest states - it has the highest median household income, according to a 2006 Census Bureau report. How come we're not at the top of the pack in math?

For the second consecutive year, Maryland's average math SAT score dropped significantly in 2007; it now stands 13 points below the national average. Furthermore, an ever-increasing percentage of Maryland's high school graduates require math remediation when they reach college, now more than four in 10 graduates (the Maryland Higher Education Commission reports an increase from 34 percent in 2001 to 41 percent in 2005).

Of immediate concern is that more than a third of all Maryland high school students (the rate nearly doubles for African-American students) have failed the state's High School Assessment test in Algebra I. In just 12 months, those students may be denied high school graduation.

Is the test too tough? It shouldn't be. A group of university mathematicians estimated that only a third of the content on this "algebra" test is true algebra; the remainder is material that should have been mastered in middle school.

What is at the source of this problem? If distinguished Michigan State mathematics professor William Schmidt is to be believed, "Student performance is directly related to the nature of the curricular expectations." So while there are several suspects - including the quality of instruction - Maryland's math standards must be considered a prime suspect.

Earning only a C from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's "The State of State Math Standards" report in 2005, Maryland's standards, while far from the worst, are not among the best in the U.S. (they were rated 19th), much less world-class. Strengthening these standards may be one of the most straightforward and effective remedies for our state's math dilemma.

According to an international test of mathematics achievements known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), there are three critical components of math expectations: focus, rigor and coherence. Other countries trounce our students in math (only 7 percent of our eighth-graders score at an "advanced" level, compared with 44 percent in top-performing Singapore). Accordingly, this study deserves our attention.

What TIMSS shows is that the highest-achieving countries focus on only three to four math topics in a given year throughout the elementary grades, favoring depth and mastery of the basics over breadth. By contrast, Maryland's third-grade math standards cover 22 topics. Maryland, like many other states, has adopted the prevailing philosophy to cover every math topic at every grade in hopes that at some point, they will all "stick." Further, many have topics that are unrelated to the critical tasks of numeracy, measurement and operations.

Maryland's standards also lack adequate mathematical rigor. While much of the world is teaching true algebra and geometry in the middle grades, Maryland children are often relearning arithmetic in sixth through eighth grades because they never had to master it the first, second or third time that it was taught. Taking algebra in seventh and eighth grades is the province of gifted students.

Coherence, the logical sequence of any curriculum, is doubly important in a hierarchical discipline such as mathematics. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel recently issued a national plea for a more logical progression of standards, particularly through foundational math. Maryland's current standards devote too much time to "fun" topics such as probability and statistics in early grades, while withholding until middle school those skills that are essential to future success in mathematics, such as fractions and decimals.

What might Maryland do differently?

The State Board of Education should engage university math experts in an effort to redesign what to teach, and test, in math. This is decidedly not the job for the usual state task force but will require experts with an international perspective. These experts should investigate the math standards in states regarded highly, including Indiana, Massachusetts and California. These standards are recognized for their focus, rigor and coherence.

Better yet, the board should study and consider the adoption of international math standards in countries that outperform the U.S. in math achievement, such as Singapore. Middle school students in Baltimore's Ingenuity Project have prospered from using the Singapore math curriculum.

There are other interventions needed to resolve Maryland's math dilemma, including improving teacher training in math pedagogy and ensuring that teachers themselves have a sufficient background in math. But if the curricular map isn't in place with improved math standards, it's unlikely that Maryland students will reach the level of achievement that a well-educated and affluent state has every right to expect.

Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation and former president of the Maryland State Board of Education. His e-mail is embry@abell.org.

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