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Achievement in Math Improves, NAEP Data Find

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WASHINGTON--Student performance in mathematics improved significantly between 1990 and 1992, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show.

In a preliminary report on the results of the 1992 assessment, which were based on a test administered to 26,000 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, the National Center for Education Statistics found that average performance in all grades rose by about five points on a 500-point scale during that period. At the same time, the proportion of students attaining the "proficient'' level of achievement, indicating "solid academic performance,'' increased by five percentage points.

Only 8th graders from disadvantaged urban areas showed a decline in math performance between 1990 and 1992, the report found.

"This is a big jump in math scores,'' said outgoing Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. "This is not like a one-point increase in [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores.''

Mr. Alexander attributed the increase to the growing use of the standards for math instruction adopted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, although others cautioned that NAEP is unable to pinpoint the cause of changes in performance.

While most observers hailed the increases, many pointed out that the report also contains cause for concern.

Despite the gains, the study found, about 40 percent of those tested failed to attain even the "basic'' level, which means showing "partial mastery'' of fundamental knowledge and skills, and few students--18 percent of 4th graders, 25 percent of 8th graders, and 16 percent of 12th graders--demonstrated "proficient'' achievement.

The drop in scores among disadvantaged urban students also is troubling, said Cynthia G. Brown, the acting executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"The nation is in danger of losing the gap-closing progress disadvantaged students have been making in recent years,'' she said.

Timing Raises Eyebrows

The report released last week, the first of several expected this year on the results of the math assessment, represents a record for a NAEP report: It is the first in the 23-year history of the assessment to come out less than a year after the test was administered.

The timing raised some eyebrows among educators, who noted that the "preliminary'' report was released in the last week of the Bush Administration. A more detailed report, which will include background data as well as state-by-state results, is scheduled for release in March.

"If the release was timed to enable the outgoing Administration to take credit for what appears to be an upturn in student achievement, I wish we would have been told,'' said Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The report is also the first to rely primarily on the standards for student achievement set by the National Assessment Governing Board as a way of presenting the results.

The standards, which have sparked controversy over their technical merit, are based on judgments of educators and public officials who determine how students at the "basic,'' "proficient,'' and "advanced'' levels of achievement should perform on the assessment.

Citing the controversy, Mr. Shanker said readers of the report should interpret the results "with caution, because those levels are under a cloud and the subject of a number of investigations.''

But Emerson J. Elliott, the commissioner of education statistics, said the public should be able to see the data while their quality is being studied.

'The Right Direction'

The results show that, on average, student achievement in math is up at each grade level.

A previous NAEP study, which analyzed trends in math performance, had shown that achievement had increased, particularly among 9- and 17-year-olds, between 1986 and 1990. But NAEP officials noted that the two reports cannot be compared, since they were based on very different tests.

The new report found that, among 4th graders, the proportion reaching at least the "basic'' level--which indicates "some evidence of understanding'' math concepts and procedures--rose from 54 percent to 61 percent, while the number attaining the "proficient'' level--showing that they could "consistently apply integrated procedural knowledge''--also grew, from 13 percent to 18 percent.

Two percent of students, the same proportion as in 1990, reached the "advanced'' level, at which students should "apply integrated procedural knowledge and conceptual understanding to complex and nonroutine real-world problem-solving.''

Among 8th graders, it found, 63 percent attained the basic level or above, 25 percent reached the proficient level, and 4 percent performed at the advanced level, while among 12th graders, 64 percent were at the basic level or above, 16 percent at the proficient level, and 2 percent at the advanced level.

Mr. Elliott pointed out that, while the number of students who failed to reach the basic level had declined, about two-fifths of students at each grade did not attain that "minimal threshhold.''

The trend is "certainly in the right direction,'' he said. "But that still is an awful lot of students.''

Using NAEP's traditional 500-point scale, the report also found that 4th graders' average proficiency rose five points, to 218; 8th graders increased five points, to 268; and 12th graders rose five points, to 299.

Because the difference between 4th and 12th graders' scores was 81 points, Secretary Alexander estimated that the five-point increase in performance represented an improvement of half a grade level.

Gains Not Uniform

In analyzing the results according to student characteristics, however, the NAEP report found that the gains were not uniform.

Although average performance for white students increased at each grade level, it found, achievement for black and Hispanic students increased only at grade 12, and the gaps between whites' and blacks' performance remained substantial.

In both 1990 and 1992, the average math proficiency of black 12th graders was about the same as that of white 8th graders, and Hispanic 12th graders performed at the same level as Asian-American 8th graders, it found.

The study also found that both male and female students improved their performance between 1990 and 1992, but male students continue to outperform their female counterparts in grades 4 and 12.

There was no significant gender difference in math performance at the 8th grade, however.

As in previous years, students in Roman Catholic and other private schools outperformed those in public schools in all three grades. But while the proportion of public school 4th graders reaching the proficient level lagged only slightly behind the proportions from the other sectors, the gap between public schools and the other sectors widened in the upper grades between 1990 and 1992.

The study also found that students in the Southeast continued to lag behind their counterparts in other regions, although Southern 12th graders improved their math performance between 1990 and 1992.

And, it found, advantaged urban students continued to outperform those from rural and disadvantaged urban areas. At grade 8, those from the disadvantaged urban areas--where high proportions of parents are on welfare or are not regularly employed--showed performance declines over the past two years.

Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement, pointed out that, despite the decline, the proportion of disadvantaged urban students performing below the basic level dropped.

She cautioned, however, that NAEP is not equipped to identify the causes of student performance. For that, she said, researchers should conduct demonstrations to determine the effects of different instructional practices.

"I don't think we have any mechanisms in place to understand the reasons for change,'' she said.

For information on obtaining copies of the report, "A Preliminary Report From National Estimates From the National Assessment of Educational Progress 1992 Mathematics Assessment,'' call the educational-information branch of the office of educational research and improvement at (800) 424-1616.

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