States Use International Math Test

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An international assessment that showed U.S. students' performance in mathematics lagging behind that of students in other industrialized nations has provided several states with a sophisticated new "benchmark" for evaluating math achievement and curricula.

Three states--Florida, Iowa, and Virginia--administered the test to their own students last spring to see how they compared with their foreign counterparts. The results will also help identify strengths and weaknesses in curricula and suggest possible improvements, state education officials say.

The test taken by students in 20 nations yields more valuable information than typical statewide math assessments, officials explain, because it measures achievement on a broader range of topics and includes more questions requiring higher-order thinking skills.

"The test gives benchmark data of where you are," said Jack Wilkinson, professor of mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa, who directed the assessment in that state. "It gives you a chance to sit back and see where you want to go."

In addition, he said, data from teacher questionnaires that accompany the test can help measure the effectiveness of a state's curriculum by indicating whether students had an "opportunity to learn" the items tested.

"State assessments tell you how much kids learn, but you lose the context of policy-related achievement," added Richard M. Berry, program director in the office of studies and program assessment at the National Science Foundation. "They don't tell you why kids are not doing very well."

The nsf awarded a $225,000 grant to the Virginia Department of Education for a model study replicating the international assessment in its schools.

'Underachieving Curriculum'

The International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement conducted its second international assessment in mathematics in 1982. A report on the results of the test, administered to 12,000 8th and 12th graders in college-preparatory math classes, was released in January. (See Education Week, Jan. 21, 1987.)

In the report, "The Underachieving Curriculum: Assessing U.S. School Mathematics From an International Perspective," the iea blamed the K-12 curriculum for the relatively poor performance of American students participating in the assessment.

The report urged schools to overhaul the K-12 math curriculum to require students to master topics sequentially and to move more quickly to advanced material.

In other countries whose students performed poorly on the assessment, the results have spurred education reforms at the national level.

In Sweden, for example, the results were published just as the legislature was debating teacher-education reform. Largely in response, according to Inger Marklund, director of research for Sweden's national board of education, lawmakers agreed to provide more resources for inservice training, study days for teachers, and reforms in the math curriculum.

"Without the iea, math teaching would have remained fundamentally unsatisfactory for years," Ms. Marklund said at an iea conference last month.

Virginia Model

In the United States, where curriculum reform is primarily a state responsibility, perhaps the most ambitious effort to use the international assessment as a tool for improving instruction is under way in Virginia.

Unlike the assessment-related projects in Florida and Iowa, Virginia's study is aimed directly at strengthening the curriculum, rather than chiefly providing a comparison with other countries, noted Mr. Berry of the nsf

"We don't usually fund one state's study," he said. "But in Virginia, we have set up a model that other states can follow."

The results, which are expected to be released this fall, will help Virginia officials provide inservice training where it is most needed, according to Edgar L. Edwards Jr., associate director for mathematics in the state education department.

"This will help us be more specific with inservice," he said. "We may be doing inservice in geometry, while [students] are doing well in geometry. We may need inservice in algebra."

For education officials in Florida,the diversity of the state's student population strongly influenced the decision to administer the international test.

International Yardstick

"We get an influx of people from all over the world," explained Charles A. Reeves, an elementary-math consultant for the state education department. "We are interested in not just how Florida compares with other states, but internationally."

Using $20,000 in federal Chapter 2 funds, the department contracted with Florida International University to administer the assessment to nearly 2,000 students in the state.

The study found that students performed comparably with those in other countries in algebra and arithmetic, but poorly in measurement and geometry. Moreover, their performance in the latter two subjects declined from 8th to 12th grade.

The findings will contribute to the deliberations of a state task force, which recently began a two-year effort to develop a plan for improving math, science, and computer education, according to Mr. Reeves.

Comparisons in Iowa

In Iowa, impetus for replicating the assessment came from the University of Northern Iowa. With help from the Des Moines Register, which used its polling expertise to select a sampling of schools, university re8searchers tested about 2,700 students in 83 of 436 school districts.

The study found that the state's 8th graders achieved much higher scores than the national average for American pupils tested in the second international study. In fact, the Iowa 8th graders scored near the top in the 20-nation comparison. The state's 12th graders performed below the international average, although still above the national average.

"Performance in the 8th grade is a function of what we teach in the 8th grade," Mr. Wilkinson said. "In Iowa, we teach arithmetic, and we teach it very well."

On the other hand, he noted, 12th graders performed relatively poorly because the test contained many questions about calculus, which few Iowa students study.

State officials must decide whether they want students to study calculus, Mr. Wilkinson said. A curriculum framework adopted by the state board of education in February placed little emphasis on the subject, he noted.

A. John Martin, chief of the bureau of instruction and curriculum in the Iowa Department of Education, said the study was "helpful" and noted that it corroborated previous data on student achievement.

Using the information provided, he said, "we can focus on areas where we need to concentrate our efforts."

Action in Other States

While Florida, Iowa, and Virginia have administered the entire test to students, other states have used portions of the test or drawn on the findings in their efforts to reform math instruction. For example:

Massachusetts officials used some items from the test in their new math test for 7th graders. While the statewide test included too few items from the international assessment to provide comparisons, the teacher questionnaires offered clues about which subjects were being taught in the state's schools.

For example, officials found that remedial-math classes seldom covered geometry, according to Elizabeth Badger, director of the math assessment for the state education department.

The Minnesota Mathematics Mobilization, a collaborative linking schools, universities, and businesses in an attempt to improve math education, distributed copies of the iea report to key state legislators and superintendents in large districts. The report helped prompt Gov. Rudy Perpich to create a statewide task force on math and science education, according to Lynn A. Steen, co-director of the group.

Louisiana Tech University, with a $66,000 grant from the nsf, conducted a three-week workshop for teachers from 15 neighboring districts this summer, using the international study as a teachers' guide. The report "gave us a sense of the kinds of materials we needed to develop inservice materials around," according to Caroline F. Tilton, associate professor of education.

The various projects undertaken by states in the wake of the international study will help ensure that the recommendations of "The Underachieving Curriculum" are implemented, said Kenneth L. Travers, national research coordinator for the assessment.

"You make inroads here and there," he said. "That's how education reform works in this country."

Vol. 07, Issue 05

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