Published: February 23, 2007

Stat of the Week — Feb. 23, 2007

Despite Math Anxiety, Scores Still on the Rise

This week, Sean Cavanagh of Education Week reports on "math anxiety." The article focuses on the work of Mark H. Ashcraft, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who presented a paper on the topic this past weekend at a conference sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ashcraft claims that math anxiety is more than just an attitude, but is rather a phobia that directly impacts the brain's processes. This phobia makes it difficult for affected students to successfully solve problems that involve carrying, borrowing, and long division, because these problems require a lot of working memory, which is the process of temporarily storing and manipulating of information.

Researchers Sian L. Beilock and Thomas H. Carr, of the University of Chicago and Michigan State University, respectively, also found a link between working memory and student achievement on math tests. The strategies employed by students with high amounts of working memory serve them well on simple problems, but can backfire when students are confronted with more complex problems.

High memory students also fall short in higher-pressure situations, such as timed tests, or where researchers put students under additional stress. According to Beilock, performance pressure sucks the working-memory that has served them so well previously. By contrast, individuals with relatively little working-memory capacity do not seem to suffer as much.

*Click on image to view full chart.

In spite of math anxiety, analysis by the EPE Research Center shows that scores on the 8th grade NAEP math assessment improved from 2003-05. Nationwide, the average improvement in the 8th grade math scale score was 1.4 points over that period.

On the state level, Arkansas saw the most improvement over the period, with an increase of 5.9 points, followed by Massachusetts with an increase of 5 points, and Texas with an increase of 4.1 points. Despite overall gains, 16 states saw declines in their scale scores from 2003-05. For more information on K-12 achievement in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, see the latest edition of Quality Counts, which features a K-12 achievement index for the first time.

To find out more about education policies in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, access the Education Counts database.