STUDENT ignorance has become a major story - and not without reason. So we braced ourselves when hearing about the poor performance by US eighth graders on the first state-by-state national math assessment (called NAEP). According to the criteria laid out, including knowledge of algebra, no state is ``cutting it'' in math. This is the phrase used by Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, echoed in a Page 1 New York Times headline, and re-echoed all day across America on National Public Radio. The math survey results represent ``an alarm bell that ought to ring all night,'' the secretary said.
Part of the reason given for alarm bells is that only one of four eighth graders, even in the highest-scoring states, can perform simple algebra. In other states the figure is one of seven.
A reality check is in order, however. The sky isn't falling yet. One reason for poor scores is that NAEP tests eighth graders on algebra. A bit of checking shows that only 20 to 25 percent of US eighth graders study algebra.
So the same fact used as an alarm - that only one out of four students are algebra-savvy - is consistent with the number of eighth graders who actually study the subject.
No one is saying student performance is excellent. It may not even be adequate. This paper has long complained about poor student knowledge of history, math, science, geography. We agree that popular culture and attitudes work against the serious, disciplined learning required for math. The NAEP study showed, for example, a clear correlation between poor-scoring states and the amount of time their students spent watching TV and away from parental guidance.
Yet it's not clear what it means that students scored poorly on a test that included material they haven't studied.
Conclusions based on the state scores needs to be tempered by the fact that comparative data aren't available. SAT math scores have actually improved. A study-in-progress by Ian Westbury of the University of Illinois shows - and it will be a barn-burner if it holds up - no difference in math ability between the best 20 percent of Japanese eighth graders, and the 20 percent of American eighth graders who take algebra.
Algebra should be studied earlier than it is. Standards need to be raised. Minority students, most of whom are tracked out of college-level math due to poor expectations, need to be given more attention. These needs don't make front-page headlines, and don't offer as much political leverage as Chicken Little cries. But they may more accurately reflect the NAEP findings than do stories of mass incompetency.