Mediocre math scores draw board's attention

State superintendent announces initiative for classes, training

September 02, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Saying that lagging math scores have become almost as pressing a concern as reading, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced plans yesterday to boost math achievement.

"While we are very focused on reading, we can't let any slippage occur in mathematics," Grasmick told a gathering of Maryland business and political leaders yesterday. "We believe mathematics deserves attention, too."

Over the past three years, the math scores for fifth-graders on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program's annual exams have remained virtually unchanged, and third- and eighth-graders have made only small gains.

FOR THE RECORD - A headline in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly implied that the state school board is involved in an initiative to improve math scores. The initiative was proposed by schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and has not yet been presented to the board. The Sun regrets the errors.

The new statewide math initiative -- dubbed "Keys to Math Success" -- would revamp and increase math instruction for children in kindergarten through third grade. It also aims to improve teacher training in math and encourage principals to develop new plans for teaching math in their schools.

Grasmick announced the initiative during the annual meeting of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a coalition of 105 companies committed to education reform and improved student achievement.

By fourth grade, many students already have decided whether they like math, Grasmick said, making it critical for elementary teachers to receive more preparation.

Much of the slip in math achievement occurs between the fourth and eighth grades. On the Third International Math and Science Study -- given to students in 41 countries in 1995 -- U.S. fourth-graders scored well above average in math, but eighth-grade U.S. math scores slipped below average. By 12th grade, U.S. students did better than only those from Cyprus and South Africa.

"We need our students to have the math skills to be able to compete," Grasmick said.

But only 40 percent of Maryland's math teachers have a college major or minor in the subject, she said. School districts have reported shortages of math teachers for years -- a worsening problem with growing student enrollment and a wave of baby- boomer-generation teacher retirements.

The problem is particularly severe in middle schools, where the majority of math teachers are certified in kindergarten through eighth grade general instruction with little preparation in math, according to state educators.

"We have got to have math teachers who are trained to teach math and comfortable teaching math," Grasmick said. "If teachers aren't comfortable teaching math, how do they inculcate a love [of] and excitement [about] math to their students?"

"We have always supported the idea that teachers should be trained for the subjects they're teaching," said Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state.

But Pence said that more training should not translate into demanding that new teachers take more upper-level math classes in college. Instead, they should be required to get more training in teaching math to children.

To decide the specific steps that need to be taken, Grasmick said she plans to appoint a task force of state and local educators, business community representatives, parents and mathematicians. She expects the group to report back to her and the state school board in the spring.

Grasmick created a similar task force for reading almost two years ago, but some of that group's work got bogged down after members disagreed over research into reading instruction.

"We don't want that again," Grasmick warned yesterday.

Francis "Skip" Fennell, the math task force's co-chairman -- and the only member appointed so far -- promised that the panel would come to agreement based on the latest and best research.

"There are issues of disagreement, but it's not like in reading," said Fennell, an education professor at Western Maryland College who recently worked with the National Science Foundation on kindergarten-through-eighth-grade math instruction. "I think it will be easier to get people on the same page in math."

Early-elementary instruction needs to include concepts in algebra and geometry, rather than simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, Fennell said. That recommendation is expected to be included in next spring's recommendations from the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, which Fennell helped write.

"We're not talking about kids in kindergarten actually studying variables and formulas in algebra, but patterns," he said. "They can start with patterns in colors and shapes, and then move to numbers."

The state's decision to focus on math comes as some local school systems are devoting more money and time to the subject.

For example, Baltimore schools are spending $10 million on new science and math books and teacher training, including having new math textbooks in all elementary and middle schools this school year. In Baltimore County, all elementary schools began using the same math textbook series this year, and secondary students also have begun learning from a new geometry curriculum.

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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