Backers of high-stakes tests claim credit as maths drive sparked by low ratings pays off. Jon Marcus reports
MATHS grades achieved by eight and 14-year-olds have made an unexpected leap in nationally-administered tests. The improvement comes after American schools had been shown to be floundering near the bottom of an international league table.
Scores for eight-year-old fourth-graders and 14-year-old eighth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose this year by about 14 points - to 226 and 274 respectively - out of a possible 500 points.
The sudden jump appears to have been triggered by the first Trends in Mathematics and Science Study in 1994-5, the largest international assessment ever done, which found that US students ranked fourth from bottom out of 20 countries surveyed.
The resulting outcry focused attention on maths education in the United States, where new programmes, state standardised tests and other measures were taken in a massive push to raise standards.
However, this year most US children still fell below the test's competence level. The gap between whites and ethnic-minorities grew. Only a quarter of students were deemed "proficient" in maths.
Eighteen-year-old 12th graders saw their scores decline to a level that the education department said "simply isn't sufficient preparation for college-level work. Students who lack a basic understanding of fundamental math skills are not ready for high-level courses in high school or college".
And children from low-income families scored 25 to 30 points below their more affluent peers, with fewer than half of them showing even "basic or partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills".
The number of students reporting that they had computers available at all times in the classroom rose by 20 per cent in the past five years, but students who use those computers didn't necessarily post higher maths scores.
"We're quite proud of the progress we've made in maths, but I don't think we can celebrate," said education secretary Rod Paige.
The results did provide important information to policy-makers. An analysis by the department of education, for example, found that those maths students whose teachers had many years of classroom experience or majored in maths at university did best. That could present a problem when many schools are having trouble attracting qualified teachers. And only about 30 per cent of the nation's maths teachers majored in maths, according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Students whose teachers had been in the classroom for 11 or more years far outscored those whose teachers had two years of experience or less, though researchers cautioned that teachers with seniority also are often allowed to choose classes with higher-performing students.
Another study found that fewer than half of all students in low-income schools have maths teachers with a university degree in maths.
Other groups interpreted the maths scores as an endorsement of the Bush administration's push for high-stakes tests. States that require such tests and use them to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in their educational systems showed the largest gains.
Achieve, an association of governors and business executives that promotes high standards, said tests should be used to force changes and improvements in schools. The Center for Education Reform, another national group, said that states with high-stakes tests were the only ones in which the gap between whites and minorities was shrinking.