Progress Is Stalling in Math. Do We Need a New Set of Strategies?

February 10, 2012

There’s bad news lurking behind the good news about our students’ performance in math. We’re losing steam. Do we need to find a new set of reform strategies?

The website for the National Assessment of Educational Progress seems at first glance to be full of good news:

  • “Fourth- and eighth-graders score higher in mathematics than in any of the previous assessment years”
  • “Higher percentage of fourth and eighth graders perform at or above Proficient in 2011 than in 2009”
  • "Scores of White, Black, and Hispanic students higher in 2011"

Dig a little deeper, however, and the picture looks worse. We were improving by relative leaps and bounds between 1990 and 2005, but then we lost momentum. In fourth grade, we witnessed a seven-point jump between 1990 and 1992 and a ten-point jump between 2000 and 2003. In all, we saw a 22-point increase in 15 years. (And remember, 10 points roughly equals a grade level’s worth of learning.) Yet the six years that follow show anemic gains at best: a scant 3 points total. Eighth grade results are a tad less dramatic, but they show a similar pattern.


As NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley has noted, we’re leveling off. Why? At least one observer believes we've come to the end of reform era and desperately need to launch another.

In The Accountability Plateau, Mark Schneider (who happens to be Buckley's predecessor) credits the standards and accountability movement for the sharp increase in scores. That movement started going strong in many states about 20 years ago and went national when No Child Left Behind became law in 2002. The problem is, he argues, that we've squeezed about all the juice we can from that orange. It's time for the next big thing.

So what is the next big thing? Schneider points to the common standards states have adopted in math and reading. He could of course be right--but it's not at all clear that common standards are such a departure from the reforms we've been pursuing since the early '90s.

In fact, many would argue that common standards seek to realize the unfulfilled promise of the old standards movement. States all set standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, but those standards were all over the place. What's worse, many states set the bar on their state tests so low that students never had to show true mastery of those standards. And all too few teachers got the support they needed to improve their instruction. If states stay on track with common standards--creating first-rate tests, ensuring that schools have first-rate curricula, and equipping teachers to make better standards come alive in the classroom--then we might just see the next big leap forward.

Common standards might in fact be an attempt to get more juice from the same orange. Sometimes you just have to squeeze harder.

Tags: math