Maryland's Math Mediocrity

September 10, 1992

Maryland boasts one of the nation's highest concentrations of scientists and engineers, it is home to some of the most respected research and higher-education institutions in the nation and its business leaders are banking on such attributes to transform Baltimore into a life-sciences center.

So why don't the offspring of this technical brainpower do better at math?

There is a striking discrepancy in the Scholastic Aptitude Test scores that were released recently. Maryland students outperformed the national average by 8 points on the verbal test, 431-423, but scored at the national norm in math, 476 points. That pattern has tracked consistently over the past decade: Maryland students generally outdo the national average on the verbal test, with one of the nation's highest percentages for students taking the college entrance examination. Yet Maryland students usually score at or below average in math.

State education officials don't have an answer. They have made some changes, though. Beginning in the 1993-94 school year, graduation requirements will specify algebra and geometry, rather than generic math credits. The more gifted upperclass students are also being encouraged to challenge themselves to a greater degree; 600 more of them took calculus last year than the year before. The Department of Education continues to send math and science teachers to summer "academies" to learn more effective ways to reach students in those subjects. It also is encouraging elementary-level teachers to fortify their own math education because an appreciation of the technical discipline needs to be instilled at an early age.

Amid Maryland's lackluster math scores, however, may lie some bright spots. The scores for Maryland students who took only 2 or 2 1/2 years of math in high school -- not typically your high achievers -- averaged 44 points higher than comparable students nationwide. That segment of Maryland students was right at the national norm five years ago and has crept up steadily since. It may be a sign that the state's introductory math courses are effective. Or, it may be that new superintendents in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and elsewhere have been right in assailing the insidious nature of "tracking" -- that many students have been unable to develop their potential on the slow tracks on which they've been placed.

The governor and state education leaders have for years recognized the need to improve math and science education, especially if Maryland wants to stake a claim as a region ripe for the development of a life-sciences industry. The key to this economic development lies in better performances in Maryland's classrooms.

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