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State's Math Scores Leap

Fourth- and eighth- graders make the biggest gain in a decade on U.S. tests, but nationally still rank low. Results in reading barely budge.

November 14, 2003|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

California students this year showed greater improvement in their math skills than at any time during the last decade, although they still ranked among low scorers nationally, alongside youngsters in Georgia, Arkansas and Hawaii, according to test results released Thursday.

Reading scores for California's fourth- and eighth-graders, however, hardly budged and remain in the bottom fourth of states' rankings.

Welcoming the math gains, teachers and education officials said pupils benefited from California's 5-year-old academic standards, which require a uniform and toughened sequence of instruction starting in the earliest grades with addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and simple algebraic equations.

"Clearly, something good is going on in California," said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I think the 1998 standards have had a positive impact on math learning" in the state.

Overall, 25% of California fourth-graders were proficient or better in math this year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, up from 12% in 1992. In eighth grade, 22% of students were at least proficient this year, up from 16% in 1992, a jump that some experts attributed to a recent emphasis on algebra in the last year of middle school.

The California math gains mirrored similar increases nationally, as other states, under federal pressure to raise scores, also changed curricula, textbooks and teaching methods.

Across the country, 31% of fourth-graders were proficient in math, up from 17% a decade ago; 27% of eighth-graders reached the proficient level, compared with 20% in 1992.

Proficiency represents "solid academic performance" and is the target level on the tests. Students at that level "demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter," said the U.S. Department of Education.

The federal academic performance gauge was provided for all states and three jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia. The national results were not broken out by campus, school district or county.

In all, more than 657,000 students in only the fourth- and eighth-grades nationwide took the tests.

According to the scores, the top-performing fourth-graders in math came from New Hampshire, Kansas and Minnesota; at least 42% of the students in those states were proficient or better.

By contrast, the lowest-performing fourth-graders came from Mississippi, New Mexico and the District of Columbia. In those two states, 17% of fourth-graders were proficient; in the nation's capital, only 7% were.

The scores offered several pieces of good news, educators said, including the fact that greater numbers of students were moving up the ladder of the four performance rungs, which are: below basic, basic, proficiency and advanced.

Just half of fourth- and eighth-graders in 1990 reached at least the basic level of competency in math. This year, 77% of fourth-graders reached that level or higher on the multiple-choice and short-response questions that involve addition, fractions, simple geometry and word problems. Sixty-eight percent of eighth-graders showed at least basic skills in long division, geometry, basic algebra and more complicated word problems.

"We're making progress, [but] it's not something that is going to happen overnight," said Jim Rubillo, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "This is all about whether someone is prepared to participate in the emerging economy."

Federal education officials also pointed out that African American, Latino and low-income students accounted for some of the biggest increases in math since 2000, the last time that portion of the exam was given.

But big gaps remain among ethnic groups. For example, 48% of Asian/Pacific Islanders in the fourth grade were at least proficient in math, compared with 42% of whites, 15% of Latinos and 10% of blacks. Similar, although less dramatic, differences were evident in reading levels.

Overall, the reading scores of the nation's fourth- and eighth-graders offered less reason to celebrate than the math results. The performance nationally of both grade levels showed little improvement over the last decade. Nationally, 30% of fourth-graders were proficient or better in reading, up slightly from 27% in 1992. California followed the same pattern.

Fourth- and eighth-graders once again exhibited no significant progress in their reading skills despite billions of dollars spent on new phonics textbooks and smaller class sizes. Only 21% of fourth-graders showed proficiency, compared with 19% in 1992 on multiple-choice comprehension questions and short essays. Similarly, 22% of eighth-graders were proficient, the same percentage as in 1998, the earliest data available.

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