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Chiefs' Report Documents Improvement In Student Achievement in Math, Science

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WASHINGTON--Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, some progress has been made in both improving student enrollment in mathematics and science courses and in student achievement in those courses since the publication of A Nation at Risk, according to a report released by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The report, "Has Science and Mathematics Education Improved Since A Nation at Risk: Trends in Course Enrollments, Qualified Teachers, and Student Achievement,'' was distributed last month to state school superintendents and math and science supervisors nationwide.

It states that student enrollment in high-school science and math courses has risen "significantly'' since the early 1980's and that student performance on national examinations in those areas also has improved during the same period.

But, the report argues, while gains have been made since the landmark federal education report was released in 1983, too few students today are enrolled in advanced science and math courses.

And, despite improvements in the performance of African-American students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress during the same period, students' overall proficiency in math and science, as measured by standardized tests, still is lacking, it says.

On a more positive note, the report says that the percentage of students enrolled in algebra and biology, considered to be "gatekeeper courses'' for more advanced studies, increased markedly between 1982 and 1990.

In 1982, only 65 percent of high-school students nationwide were enrolled in algebra; by 1990, the figure was 81 percent. Similarly, the percentage of students enrolled in a first-year biology course increased from 75 percent to 95 percent over the same period.

Mandates Faulted

But the document--which was compiled from a variety of sources by Rolf K. Blank, the director of the council's Science and Mathematics Indicators Project, and Pamela Engler, an education-policy analyst with the Florida Department of Education--also indicates that a new direction is needed to encourage students to further their studies in math and science.

It notes, for example, that state efforts to increase student enrollment in math and science courses through tougher graduation requirements have done little to encourage students to enroll in the more challenging courses. Enrollment increases in such advanced courses as chemistry, physics, trigonometry, and calculus are markedly smaller than those for introductory courses, the report notes.

"State graduation requirements have had limited success in increasing study of higher-level science and mathematics, indicating that other reforms at state, district, or school levels are needed to accomplish this objective,'' the report concludes.

Similarly, while proficiency scores, as measured by NAEP, have improved since 1982, "a majority of students' mathematics knowledge and skills ... are lower than what [math] educators expect for students at grades 4, 8, and 12.''

The report also indicates that while predictions of severe shortages of science and math teachers that were expected to materialize in the 1990's have, for a variety of reasons, not come true, weaknesses exist in the preparation of the math- and science-teacher workforce.

"There are shortages of qualified high-school science and mathematics teachers as measured by the number of teachers assigned out of their field ... and by the proportion of teachers with majors in their assigned fields,'' the report states.

Copies of the report may be obtained for $2 each by calling Melanie Dalkilic, of the council's state education-assessment center, at (202) 336-7049.

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