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Math + test = trouble for US economy

First-of-its kind study shows US lags many other nations in real-life math skills.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2004



WASHINGTON

For a nation committed to preparing students for 21st century jobs, the results of the first-of-its-kind study of how well teenagers can apply math skills to real-life problems is sobering.

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American 15-year-olds rank well below those in most other industrialized countries in mathematics literacy and problem solving, according to a survey released Monday.

Although the notion that America faces a math gap is not new, Monday's results show with new clarity that the problem extends beyond the classrooms into the kind of life-skills that employers care about. And to the surprise of some experts, the US shortcoming exists even when only top students in each nation are considered.

"It's very disturbing for business if the capacity to take what you know ... and apply it to something novel is difficult for US teenagers," says Susan Traiman, director of education and workforce policy at the Business Roundtable.

Grim results on such international tests helped build political support for higher standards in US schools in the 1990s, and especially for more consistent testing and tougher accountability measures in the No Child Left Behind Act, a centerpiece of President Bush's domestic program in his first term.

The president campaigned to extend that testing regime into US high schools in his second term. The new test results are likely to be Exhibit A as the Bush administration prepares a new round of education reforms aimed at US high schools.

The tests also give educators some clues about teaching programs that are successful and might be transplanted to the US.

"These tests are enormously instructive to the US, especially when we look at the instructional programs in other countries to see what works," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

A key to the success of students in other nations is a very focused curriculum, maintained over time, he adds. "We can't do it nationally," because the US is a vast, diverse country with little appetite for a national curriculum. "But we can do it in cities, and we are."

The international survey was done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2003, testing 15-year-olds.

But PISA, unlike previous international assessments, is measuring not just whether students have learned a set math curriculum, but whether they can apply math concepts outside the classroom. In the US, 262 schools and 5,456 students participated in the two-hour, paper and pencil assessment. Most answers were constructed responses, not just the multiple choice format.

In one question, students are asked to calculate the number of dots on the bottom face of six dice, given the rule that the total number of dots on two opposite faces is always seven. Only 63 percent of US students got it right, compared with 68 percent of their peers in OECD countries. (This question was ranked Level 2, out of three proficiency levels.) Other problems involved constructing simple decision tree diagrams for a lending library, figuring out which gate is stuck closed in an irrigation system, and generating graphics on computers.

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