Board seeks fix for falling math scores

MSPAP results show declines in pupils' performance on test

`Extremely disappointing'

Expert to discuss benefits, shortfalls of county curriculum

January 30, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Next week, an expert on math education will appear before the Anne Arundel school board to tell members what's right and what's wrong with the county's math curriculum.

They'll be listening closely - especially to the bad parts.

The school board wants to know why county math scores continue to fall. On state test results released this week, math scores went down for pupils in all grades tested: third, fifth and eighth.

Fifth-graders posted their lowest math score in the history of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program - 47.8 percent scoring satisfactory, down from 63.2 percent five years ago.

Among third-graders, 42.5 percent scored satisfactory, down more than 8 percentage points from the high posted in 1997. Eighth-grade math scores are more steady but, with 50.1 percent scoring satisfactory, are still down almost 5 percentage points in two years.

"It's extremely disappointing," said board member Joseph Foster. "We have, as a board, tried to support a number of efforts to make improvements, and they don't seem to be working."

But school system staff says more attention has been given to other subjects, such as reading and science, while math has not been a priority lately. The fourth- and fifth-grade math curriculum, for instance, has not been updated in a decade.

"They're very dated curriculum guides, and it's showing," said Anita Morris, the county's math coordinator. "Teachers have not been focused on new math training."

In elementary schools, one teacher usually has children all day long and teaches them most subjects. When those teachers get training in subjects other than math, they tend to focus on subjects other than math, Morris said.

There are other possible explanations for the decline, said Gary Heath, the chief of the State Department of Education's arts and sciences branch. The county has seen an increase in two groups of students who traditionally score below average on tests - minorities and children who receive a free or reduced-price school lunch, according to Department of Education data.

Heath said the state also has more new teachers, and that the loss of experienced teachers is showing. Between 1992 and 2000, the number of teachers with five years' experience or less increased from 17.6 percent to 30.3 percent.

But Foster wasn't pleased with those explanations. "It's not acceptable to use that excuse - that because students come from economically deprived families, they should do poorly," he said. "Or that they have a new teacher so they should do poorly."

Foster said the county might need to change its math curriculum - welcome words for Morris, the math coordinator.

While the second- and third-grade curricula were recently revised, and the results are beginning to show on several national tests, the fourth- and fifth-grade curricula are in bad need of an overhaul, she said.

The math education expert who, coincidentally, will appear before the school board next week, will provide some direction on curriculum. But officials would not release yesterday the recently completed audit by Francis Fennel of Western Maryland College.

In an interview, Fennel said, "It's pretty clear the scores in Anne Arundel were low. A lot of very good teachers spend a lot time agonizing about that and how they can get their kids prepared, so there's probably a bunch of folks who are not feeling real good today."

Fennel said a good curriculum needs a balance between traditional math drills and constructivist philosophy, which engages children with activities.

Such a blend is being practiced at Jones Elementary in Severna Park, where 91 percent of children scored satisfactory on the MSPAP math test - one of the highest scores in the state. Children at Jones create games based on probability and play numbers games based on the calendar.

"You first have them understand it before you drill them for speed and accuracy," said Gina Clements, a third-grade teacher at Jones.

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