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Reviewers Disappointed in States' Mathematics and Science Standards

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The standards states are setting for student performance in math and science are disappointingly low, a pair of studies say, and are, for the most part, unlikely to boost U.S. students' achievement.

The new critiques of state standards documents found that in math just three states out of 46 studied earned A's for their outlines of what student should know and be able to do in the subject. States scored a bit better for their science standards, with six out of 36 states receiving A's.

But more than one-third of the states received F's for their math standards, and one out of four of the states reviewed flunked science.

"Too many of these standards are vague, flimsy, illogical, or just plain sloppy," Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan, said in a statement. The foundation commissioned the two reviews, one each on math and science standards.

California was the only state to earn A's for both its subject-area standards. The authors of the math report based their grade on the highly controversial set of math standards recently approved by the state school board. ("Calif. Education Officials Approve Back-to-Basics Standards in Math," Jan. 14, 1998.)

Just two other states earned at least B's in both subjects--Arizona and Utah.

"The failure of almost every state to delineate even that which is to be desired in the way of mathematics education constitutes a national disaster," write the authors of the math critique, Ralph A. Raimi, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Rochester in New York, and Lawrence S. Braden, a math teacher at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H.

The reviewers judged math standards on clarity, content, how much deductive reasoning was woven into the curriculum, and whether the document avoided negative qualities the authors labeled "false doctrine and inflation."

'Appalling' Assessment

The states' standards--many based heavily on the 1989 standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics--consistently fell down in the area of deductive reasoning, the authors found. They say it is "destructive" that "mathematics is today widely regarded (in the schools) as something that must be presented as usable, 'practical,' and applicable to 'real world' problems at every stage of schooling, rather than as an intellectual adventure."

Largely spurning the NCTM's approach, California's standards, however, pulled a perfect score.

The Golden State's document, the authors say, is short--37 pages--and to the point. "Whatever of 'real world' application school mathematics can have is found here, set upon a solid basis of necessary understanding and skill," the authors write.

Not everyone agrees with the rosy portrait of California's math standards. Margaret DeArmond, the immediate past president of the 10,000- member California Mathematics Council, an NCTM affiliate representing math educators, called the Fordham Foundation assessment "appalling" and wondered about the critique's authors: "Why are they the experts in standards?"

The California standards lack focus and an emphasis on conceptual understanding, she said, which must go hand in hand with skills and problem-solving. "Just because you practice the skills, it doesn't mean you understand the concept."

Science Bests Others

Of the five evaluations of states' academic standards released by the Fordham Foundation so far, the one on science is the most upbeat when compared with the largely dismal reviews for English, history, geography, and math. ("AFT, Foundation Find Good and Bad in States' Standards," Aug. 6, 1997 and "Academics Blast State History, Geography Standards," March 4, 1998.)

Still, the science critique calls the overall performance of the states "mediocre and very disappointing."

"As a general rule, the overarching theories that are the skeletons of the sciences are perceptible only by implication even in the best-organized documents, and are invisible to many of the others," writes the author of the evaluation, Lawrence S. Lerner, a professor of physics and astronomy at California State University-Long Beach. Mr. Lerner was a major author and editor of California's science framework, which earned a 72 out of a possible 75 points in the Fordham report.

Some science topics, according to the report, are glossed over or are absent entirely from the documents of many states. Such issues include energy; evolution, especially human evolution; modern astronomy; and the role of scientific revolutions.

But, the evaluation finds, Indiana's standards are exemplary. The document "is a model of clarity, accuracy, and completeness. A student who fulfills the requirements set forth will have received an excellent education."

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