U.S. pupils' math scores are 'very depressing,' education official says Middle school instruction blamed

called 'mediocre,' 'routine,' 'not challenging'

September 11, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Maryland math and science educators understand the problem; they just can't solve it.

Gathered for a fall retreat in Linthicum, about 150 math teachers and supervisors, as well as principals and other administrators, took a close look at why U.S. students don't do as well as those from other countries on international tests, courtesy of Pascal D. Forgione Jr., U.S. commissioner of education statistics.

"The overall results were very depressing," said Forgione, as he described the results of the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) given to students in 41 countries in 1995.

U.S. fourth-graders scored well above average in math and science, but eighth-grade math scores slipped below average and by 12th grade, U.S. students did better than only those from Cyprus and South Africa.

They did slightly better in science, said Forgione, the head ofthe National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education.

Despite reams of data, showing not only the big picture but also small details of math and science education in this and other countries, Forgione offered no ways to improve instruction or achievement. "There are no simple answers here," he said. "If there were, you'd be doing them."

He geared much of his presentation to eighth-grade results and implications because members of the statewide middle school task force were among the participants at the Maritime Institute for Technology and Graduate Studies. For them, he had a message: Middle-school math instruction "is mediocre, it's routine and it's not challenging. There's not the diversity that you would expect," said Forgione, who taught in Baltimore schools 30 years ago.

"In math, we're the only country in the world to go above the international average at fourth grade and below it at eighth," Forgione said.

The task force, appointed by state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, will offer recommendations for improving middle schools, though not before the end of this school year at the earliest.

In math and science, U.S. students seemed to have mastered basics and were able to apply knowledge, Forgione said test results showed, but they did not seem to understand the concepts behind the application.

In addition to the results of the written tests, the center has done a video study of math instruction in classrooms in the United States, Germany and Japan. From these lessons, Forgione plucked information that seemingly influences the quality of instruction.

For instance, 28 percent of eighth-grade math lessons had at least one interruption, either on the public-address system or from a visitor. In Japanese classrooms, there was none.

Also, eight of every 10 concepts introduced in those classrooms were not developed enough for students to understand them. In Japan, only two of every 10 topics were underdeveloped.

This coincides with another problem: During the average eighth-grade year, 35 math topics are covered. Germany ranks second in this distinction with slightly more than 20, and teachers in Japan cover about 18. Even in first-grade classrooms, U.S. teachers cover about 13 topics, where those in Germany teach three.

Wicomico County science specialist Daniel Savoy said he was happy to have the opportunity to study the TIMSS implications and sample questions that he could take to teachers.

But Savoy said he would not be in favor of Maryland students participating in the next TIMSS tests, to be given in May.

"It's like another piece on the plate, which is already too full," he said.

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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