Four-Fifths of Students Fail To Attain Proficiency in Math, Report Shows

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WASHINGTON--Fewer than 20 percent of American students have "demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter" in mathematics, a report by the National Assessment Governing Board concludes.

The long-awaited and controversial report, expected to be issued this week, analyzes for the first time student performance against standards for what 4th, 8th, and 12th graders should know and be able to do in a key subject.

The report found that, on the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress math test, more than a third of the students in each of the three grades failed to reach the "basic" level of achievement, indicating "less than partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade level."

The number of students who performed at the advanced level, indicating superior performance, by contrast, ranged from 0.6 percent in grade 4 to 2.6 percent in grade 12, the report found.

In addition to national data, the report also includes state-level figures on tests taken by 8th graders in 34 states and the District of Columbia. The results reveal wide variations in state performance against the standards. Only 23 percent of students in Minnesota and North Dakota performed below the basic level, for example, while nearly two-thirds of Louisiana 8th graders and four-fifths of those in the District of Columbia failed to attain that level of achievement.

The report also points out that white and Asian students achieved at substantially higher levels than blacks and Hispanics. In addition, students from "advantaged urban areas" attained higher levels than those in rural and disadvantaged urban areas, and more male students reached the proficient and advanced levels at the 12th grade than did female students.

But even those differences, the report suggests, "are largely variations on a theme."

"Even in the most successful demographic groups," it states, "the majority of students do not meet the performance standards set at the proficient level and only a small fraction of students reach the advanced level."

"The failure of the students to reach the performance standards set by a broad-based group of citizens," it continues, "is not the problem of isolated groups of students, but, rather, a reflection of the performance of all segments of the population."

What Students Should Know

The N.A.G.B. report, "The Levels of Mathematics Achievement," represents a sharp departure from previous NAEP reports--including the one issued in June, which first presented the results of the 1990 math assessment. (See Education Week, June 12, 1991 .)

Unlike those reports, which simply describe how students performed on the assessment, the new document compares performance according to "judgments of how much students should know or be able to do."

Some testing experts, including a panel hired by the board to evaluate the project, have argued that the process for setting such standards was flawed. As a result, they contend, the data in the report do not represent accurate statements about student achievement.

The board in August fired the evaluators after receiving a draft copy of their final report. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

The board acknowledged in its report that the process was "imperfect," and said it would consider alternatives in the future. But panel members also maintained that the standards "represent the board's best judgment, informed by the advice of many others."

In setting the standards, the board defined three levels of achievement: basic, or partial mastery of knowledge and skills; proficient, or solid academic performance; and advanced, or superior performance.

The proficient level, the report notes, corresponds to the national education goal for student achievement set by President Bush and the governors, which states that all students by the year 2000 will demonstrate "competency in challenging subject matter."

Those at the basic level correctly answered about 45 percent of the questions on the assessment; those at the proficient level, between 68 percent and 73 percent; and those at the advanced level, about 87 percent.

In consultation with mathematics exports, the board also defined the knowledge and skills that those at each level should be able to demonstrate, and. selected sample questions to illustrate such abilities. (See box, preceding page.)

Influences on Performance

As previous NAEP studies have shown, the report indicates that students' course-taking and family background are strongly associated with performance on the assessment.

In every grade, it found, students whose parents finished high school had higher percentages at each achievement level than did those whose parents did not complete high school. Similarly, students with high-school-graduate parents had lower percentages at all levels than did those whose parents had attended college.

In addition, 12th graders who had taken eight or more semesters of math were 55 times as likely to attain the proficient level than were those who had taken three or fewer semesters--38.6 percent versus 0.7 percent.

Copies of the N.A.G.B. report are available for free, while supplies last, from participating states, or from the National Assessment Governing Board. Write: N.A.G.B. Report, 1100 St., N.W., Suite 7322, Washington, D.C. 20005-4013; or call: (202) 357-6938.

Vol. 11, Issue 05, Pages 14-15

Published in Print: October 2, 1991, as Four-Fifths of Students Fail To Attain Proficiency in Math, Report Shows
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