Sub-Standard Math Standards Get Help

After 17 years of promoting "fuzzy" math, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has finally found clarity.

In its new report "Curriculum Focal Points," NCTM reverses its previous recommendations that early math instruction focus on abstract conceptual skills (such as asking students to write about math instead of actually doing it) and now holds that students should master basic arithmetic and number facts.

Unlike previous NCTM reports, this one doesn't offer reams of recommendations. Instead, it limits itself to just three basic skills that students at each grade level should know.

Critics--including many parents--have long decried NCTM's 1989 report as one reason American students perform poorer in math than their peers in other countries. Results from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a test that compares student math achievement across the globe, has U.S. students ranked 15th in eighth-grade math skills--behind Latvia and the Slovak Republic, among others. NCTM's new "Focal Points" more closely resemble the math curriculum of Singapore, which ranked number 1 in the 2003 study.

The change couldn't come at a better time. Ohio's math standards are in dire need of an overhaul. They merited only a "C" in Fordham's The State of State Standards 2006, which evaluated states' academic standards. Among the most egregious deficiencies was the limited coverage of arithmetic and algebra indicators--the results of which are clearly visible on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2005, 57 percent of Ohio's tested fourth-graders scored Basic or Below Basic on the math portion of the test. And 67 percent of eighth-graders failed to score Proficient or above.

Yet the consequences of such poor performance don't stop at the eighth grade. In Ohio, as in other states, large numbers of high school students graduate without the requisite skills for success in college or the workplace. A study by ACT (see here) found that just 45 percent of the state's graduates taking the test in 2006 were prepared for college-level math courses. And the costs of playing catch-up are mainly shouldered by taxpayers. The Alliance for Excellent Education (see here) recently found that reducing the need for remedial study would save Ohio over $69 million per year--a large portion of which is devoted to remedial math courses. Not to mention the almost $63 million a year in taxable earnings the state would net by having those students in the workforce sooner.

NCTM's sharpened focus is one step to improving students' college and workplace readiness (the Ohio Core could be another) in the Buckeye State. Ohio should waste little time sharpening its pencils--and revise its sub-standard math standards accordingly.

"Report Urges Changes in the Teaching of Math in U.S. Schools," by Tamar Lewin, The New York Times, September 13, 2006.

"NCTM Issues New Guidelines to Help Schools Home In on the Essentials of Math," Education Week, September, 12, 2006.

"New Report Urges Return to Basics in Teaching Math," by John Hechinger, The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), September, 12, 2006.

Check out NCTM's report here.

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