Thursday, October 15, 2009

TN math scores among worst in U.S.

State raises standards, assures scores will rise By Jaime Sarrio • THE TENNESSEAN • October 15, 2009 Math scores for Tennessee students rank among the worst in the nation and have not made significant gains over the last two years, results from an important nationwide test showed Wednesday. Tennessee eighth-graders scored lower than their peers in 36 states, while fourth-graders scored lower than students in 43 states. The state followed the national trend, failing to make any considerable improvements since the 2007 test. Department of Education officials said they were not surprised by the results, which continue a long history of low academic performance by the Volunteer State. But they are pointing to new curriculum standards enacted this year as proof that the state is trying to do better. Rachel Woods, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said making Tennessee's schools harder and redefining what it means for a student to be "proficient" will lead to increases on future exams. "You will see it in two years," she said. "Our standards are too easy, so we're going to plateau at some point if we don't raise the bar, which is what we're doing." After nearly a decade of gradual growth in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Tennessee's students in 2009 showed a one-point growth in eighth grade, scoring 275, and a one-point decline in fourth grade, scoring 232. Neither result is considered a significant change. Known as the Nation's Report Card, the assessment is given by the U.S. Department of Education to a sample of students from every state. It's one of the few tests that offer a snapshot of how the nation's students are performing academically. This year, the test was given to 330,500 fourth- and eighth-grade students. Results in reading and science will be released early next year. Nationally, fourth-grade students showed no increase, while scores for students in eighth grade jumped two points from 280 to 282. Tennessee made some gains with Hispanic and black students, though on the whole minority students still scored lower on the test than their white classmates. Remaining competitive The results come as national leaders grapple with how to keep U.S. students competitive in a global economy, where math and science skills will play prominent roles. "Overall, you have to conclude that mathematics achievement is not close to where it should be, particularly compared to other countries," said David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the policy for the exam. "A major reason continues to be the lack of content knowledge and mathematics preparation of our teachers." Driscoll, the former Massachusetts commissioner of education, said preparation and requirements to teach elementary school are parts of the problem. He pointed to Massachusetts, where at one time a teacher could fail the math portion of the teacher-licensing exam and still get certified. Nashville parent David Kern said the quality of math teachers in Metro is inconsistent. One of his children received exceptional math instruction in Metro, while another was behind when he started college. "Part of the problem is not specific to Metro," he said. "To be able to teach math, you need to really know math." The right teachers Data from the nation's report card showed that in 2009, eighth-graders with a teacher who majored in math as an undergraduate scored nine points higher on the exam. James Guthrie, director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University, said preparing teachers is just one part of the equation. States need to be more aggressive at reforming failing schools and increasing accountability, Guthrie said. "This is a hard thing to do," he said. "Reforming our schools and achieving these goals will not happen easily."

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