Adding Up Poor Math Scores

March 16, 1994

Any way you add it up, most Maryland students in public school do poorly in their basic understanding of mathematics.

It might be tempting to dismiss the 1992-93 results of the stringent Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which showed third, fifth and ninth grade students falling far short in creative problem-solving in reading, science, social studies and math.

However, the more traditional functional tests that measure student knowledge are not so easy to write off. They reveal that mathematics was the only academic subject whose standard was not met by the ninth and 11th grade Maryland pupils in public schools tested last year. In other words, they failed to measure up.

Moreover, on national examinations, Maryland public school students as a group managed only average scores during the previous two years.

Small wonder -- and good thing, too -- that more public schools have begun placing greater emphasis on math studies and how it relates to everyday life.

At Lisbon Elementary School in Howard County, for example, students recently spent a day applying the rules of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division to food, toys and other familiar objects. They also heard various professionals, from a banker to an airplane pilot, explain how math is a crucial part of their jobs. A similar "math marathon" was held recently at Riviera Beach Elementary in Anne Arundel.

Give credit to students in both Anne Arundel and Howard schools for outperforming the statewide average in the assessment categories cited above.

Still, they achieved no better than a satisfactory rating for math in the latest functional tests. In the Baltimore metropolitan area, only ninth graders from Carroll and Harford counties attained an excellent ranking in the tests of student knowledge.

Pocket calculators, "swipe cards" and other forms of technology have reduced the amount of mental computation that both young and old must perform.

At the same time, the average student's ability to tackle basic math problems should not be allowed to shrink in proportion to technology's progress. More schools ought to be teaching their pupils that math is indeed a practical and fun skill. That could be the only way we'll be able to count on improved mathematics prowess in the future.

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