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Pupils Said To Like Math Despite Poor Marks

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CHICAGO--Although they consider mathematics the most popular and important subject in school, most American students performed poorly on a national math assessment, researchers analyzing data from the assessment said here last week.

About 90 percent of 7th and 11th graders tested said they considered math important, the data show, and two-thirds said they liked it.

But achievement data from the assessment, to be released next month, show that few students are able to perform well on tasks requiring skills beyond simple calculation, the researchers said.

'Desire To Do Well'

"Their strong desire to do well is strangely at odds with the poor performance we see,'' said Jane O. Swafford, professor of mathematics at Illinois State University. "Who is failing--the students or the system?''

"If we teach better, and give students better materials, will they do better?'' she asked.

One "encouraging'' finding, she added, is that students with the most positive attitudes toward the subject tended to do better on the assessment. "We like to believe that attitudes are as much a goal in math education as achievement,'' she noted.

Ms. Swafford is one of a team of researchers from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics that is analyzing the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress math assessment under a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The researchers presented some of their findings here last week at the NCTM's annual conference. A complete report on the assessment, including achievement data, is expected to be released next month by NAEP.

Unrealistic Attitudes?

Ms. Swafford said other findings from the assessment may point to possible reasons for the evident discrepancy between positive attitudes and poor performance.

More than three-fourths of the students said math is practical and useful in solving everyday problems, according to Ms. Swafford. But less than half said they expected to use math in their jobs.

"Perhaps they consider it important for other people, not for themselves,'' she suggested.

Students also have an inflated view of their own mathematical ability, Ms. Swafford said.

Some 60 percent of the 7th graders, and half of the 11th graders, considered themselves "good'' or "very good'' in the subject, said the researcher, more than did so in a similar assessment in 1978; more than two-thirds in each grade considered themselves "above average.''

At the same time, she noted, nearly half of the high-school students said math was the most difficult academic subject.

These findings suggest that students may not be "working as hard as they need to work in a subject they said is hard,'' Ms. Swafford said. "That may account for the low achievement we see.''

Other Findings

Among the researchers' other findings:

  • Students overwhelmingly reject the notion that math is a "male'' subject, but the proportion who agree that it is has grown over the past decade.
  • Nearly all students said they had a calculator at home, but fewer than a fourth said that calculators were available in school for use in math classes.

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