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Math Proficiency in Some States Found To Stack Up

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The math proficiency of 8th graders from the nation's top-ranked states--Iowa, North Dakota, and Minnesota--is comparable to that of students from the best-performing nations, such as Taiwan and South Korea, reports a federal study to be released this week at the national education summit.

Likewise, the math proficiency of 8th graders in Louisiana, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia--the lowest-ranked states--is comparable to that of students in the worst-performing nations, such as Jordan, the National Science Foundation study says.

"The Learning Curve" is a 23-page preface to a broader report to be released next month.

The full document, "Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education 1995," is the second in a series of what were to be biennial reports produced by the science foundation in response to a 1991 congressional mandate.

The study compares the math-proficiency scores for 13-year-olds in several countries with those of public school 8th graders in selected states across the United States.

On a scale of 170 to 350, students in Taiwan scored highest, followed by Iowa, South Korea, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

At the bottom of the scale were Louisiana, followed by Jordan, Mississippi, and, finally, the District of Columbia.

Both "The Learning Curve" and the larger main report were supposed to be released last summer but were delayed for undisclosed reasons, said Daryl E. Chubin, the director of the research, evaluation, and communication division of the NSF's education and human-resources directorate.

Other Findings

The first report, released in 1992, was a hefty document of nearly 500 pages, but the new version is expected to be much smaller at just 200 pages.

Like the 1992 study, the preface and the forthcoming main report are analyses of existing data from sources such as the federally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only ongoing national test of students' knowledge in key subject areas.

Among the findings to be released this week at the summit of governors and business leaders in Palisades, N.Y., are the following:

  • More students are working toward degrees in the sciences, and they are arriving at college better prepared.

    The proportion of students choosing to major in natural science or engineering who took calculus in high school increased from about one-quarter to one-third between 1990 and 1993; the proportion who had taken physics increased from one-half to almost two-thirds.

  • Most secondary school math and science teachers continue to rely heavily on lectures despite a push from education reformers toward more hands-on activities in the classroom.

    Fewer than 40 percent of junior high or high school math and science classes reported using hands-on activities in their most recent lessons.

  • High school teachers are more likely than elementary school teachers to be prepared to teach science and math.

    Only about two-thirds of those who teach classes through grade 8 have finished at least one college-level course in biological, physical, or earth sciences.

  • In 1974, only 15 percent of states required at least two years of math study for graduation. By 1992, nearly 90 percent of states did so. In addition, advanced science and math courses have become more available.

    Nearly all U.S. high schools offer introductory algebra, geometry, and biology as well as chemistry, physics, algebra II, and trigonometry.

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