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Students Aren't That Bad in Math

Education: The county's fourth- and eighth-graders do well when tested on what they have been taught.

May 04, 1997|JOHN F. DEAN | John F. Dean is Orange County superintendent of schools

Claims are made in the media that California's fourth- and eighth-grade students rank among the worst in the nation in mathematics. What's the problem? Don't your public schools teach arithmetic and mathematics any more? The answer is, of course they do. It's time to set the record straight.

News stories deriding mathematics performance are based on one test: the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress). Although I have never seen that examination, I must assume that it is a nationally standardized test.

On evidence, it is given across the nation to what we believe is an anything-but-representative sample of students in our fourth and eighth grades. California has 5.5 million K-12 students, with about 450,000 fourth-graders. More than 2,000 took the test statewide. Only a handful of those, two classes, were from Orange County's 442,000 K-12 students. Eighth grade numbers are close to the same.

Several Orange County school districts tested all of their students, not just a sample. Saddleback Valley fourth-graders, for example, took the California Achievement Test, a nationally standardized, reliable and regularly updated test used for decades. Saddleback's fourth-graders scored in the 76th percentile; 76% of the students across the nation scored lower.

Santa Ana, with 86% Latino children, used the CTBS (Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills), another nationally ranked exam, and scored at the 50th percentile, and these are students whose home language is not necessarily English.

Garden Grove's fourth-graders took the Metropolitan Achievement Test and scored at the 66th percentile.

Again, what's the problem? Why are our students showing so poorly on one test and so well on another? Basic to teaching is that you test what you teach. Good teachers teach the subject, then test what they taught.

One clue we learned recently is that the NAEP test spends half the testing time asking students to explain their reasoning. I'm not sure how recently you had to divide a fraction by a fraction and, unless you're a chef or an engineer, you probably don't have much need for that information.

But do you recall how to do it? Invert and multiply, right? But do you know why we do that? I don't have the slightest idea why I do. I was a journalism major at the university and journalism majors don't use that information very often. Serious, professional mathematicians need to know not only how but why, but I am not certain that it needs to be among that list of facts everyone should commit to memory.

What is taught in California public schools is the province of the Legislature, the State Board of Education and the state Curriculum Commission. This commission sets subject matter guidelines on what shall be taught, then textbooks that embrace those guidelines are adopted by the State Board of Education. California is a major player in textbook adoptions, since we buy about 12% of all textbooks sold in the United States; in essence, we call the textbook-publishing shots.

Our teachers are teaching content the State Board of Education has directed. Several nationally recognized, reliable and respected tests prove that our students are not among the lowest performers in the nation. Test our students on what they have been taught, according to state guidelines and curriculum frameworks, and we are among the best.

Could we do better? Of course, and we will. New guidelines are being developed where more attention will be paid to the basics, but Orange County schools are not falling apart.

If you want to prove to yourself that our teachers are teaching and our children are learning, call and visit your local public school.

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