Improvements in states’ academic standards in English/language arts have been widespread since the federal No Child Left Behind Act kicked in three years ago, but the mathematics guidelines are still generally “vague and undemanding,” concludes the latest 50-state review by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
More than a decade after states began devising academic standards to guide instruction in the core subjects, only California, Indiana, and Massachusetts earned A’s in both subjects from the Washington-based research organization.
Even with the improvements in English/language arts overall, separate Fordham reports on English and math conclude, the standards in both are too often “unteachable” and adhere to what the foundation argues are misguided instructional methods.
The English/language arts standards were reviewed by Sandra Stotsky, a research scholar at Northeastern University in Boston. She noted that the standards are generally “clearer, stronger, and more usable.” Moreover, she said, more states have outlined explicit reading skills that should be taught and have placed more emphasis on vocabulary development.
David Klein, a professor of mathematics at California State University-Northridge, led the review of the math standards. He and four other math scholars gave just six states an A or B in the subject, and 29 a D or F.
Mr. Klein concluded that too many states underemphasize arithmetic skills and encourage calculator use.
The math report blames some of the weaknesses the authors see in state math standards on the influence of the content guidelines promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The Reston, Va.-based organization has been criticized by some mathematicians and conservative groups on the grounds that it promotes mathematical thinking over basic skills in the subject.
But in two separate international studies released last month, U.S. students performed relatively well in demonstrating their knowledge of math topics presented to them in class. Their scores were weaker, however, in problem-solving and their ability to apply academic knowledge to real-world tasks.
“The content criteria used [in the Fordham evaluation] is subjective and takes a view that differs somewhat from the positions NCTM has taken in terms of what content is important,” said NCTM President Cathy L. Seeley. “It’s all based on what your yardstick is.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week