Mathematics

Coalition of Governors, Business Leaders Plans for New Math Test

By Debra Viadero — May 12, 1999 3 min read

Ten states have signed on to a $2 million effort by a group of governors and corporate executives to create an 8th grade mathematics test that parallels those used in the world’s top-performing nations.

Achieve Inc. outlined its plans for the test at a news conference here last week. The nonprofit organization also announced plans for a third national education summit, to be held Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in Palisades, N.Y.

The states that have agreed to take part in the new test are Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Scheduled to be administered for the first time in 2002, the test will allow states to compare their students’ performance against that of their peers in other participating states. As part of the package, the states will also receive a syllabus to help students and teachers bone up for the exams and help in choosing textbooks and designing teacher-training programs geared to the test.

“Our real goal is to change the way mathematics is taught and learned in U.S. schools in 8th grade,” said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve, which has offices here and in Cambridge, Mass.

‘An Inch Deep’

The group, which includes several Fortune 500 company executives, grew out of the last national education summit held at the International Business Machines Corp.'s conference-center campus in Palisades three years ago. Achieve leaders were prompted to focus on 8th grade mathematics after the widely publicized Third International Mathematics and Science Study showed that U.S. 8th graders placed in the middle of the pack among the 41 nations that took the test.

“This is the turning point where our kids either slip further into mediocrity or rise to world-class performance,” said IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr., a co-chairman of Achieve along with Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin.

The curriculum taught in 8th grade math classes is “still a mile wide and an inch deep,” said William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University. He was hired by Achieve to compare state math standards and exams in 21 states with those of the countries that scored high on TIMSS.

Besides superficially covering a broad range of topics, he said, states’ 8th grade math tests overemphasize arithmetic. More than half the items on those tests deal with basic computation rather than the kinds of higher math stressed in other nations.

On the new test, 8th graders will encounter questions on equations, formulas, roots, radicals, measurement, proportionality, and other topics underpinning the study of algebra and geometry.

States can either administer the test on top of their existing programs or use it to replace their 8th grade math assessments.

Calls for nationally comparable tests are nothing new, but have faced serious opposition as a threat to local control. Presidents Clinton and Bush both pushed for national tests to little or no avail.

But Achieve leaders contend they will succeed where the federal government failed because they are working “from the bottom up.”

“In the U.S., education is a local enterprise,” Mr. Gerstner said, “and there is a resistance to national solutions.”

The National Center for Education and the Economy, a nonprofit group based here, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center began a similar nongovernmental effort to develop standards and matching assessments in 1991 with support from 22 states and six districts. Since then, however, only two states--Rhode Island and Vermont--and some districts in 16 other states have purchased the exams.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Coalition of Governors, Business Leaders Plans for New Math Test

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