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Report Shows US Students Improving Math Skills - 2001-08-02

American 4th and 8th graders are getting better in mathematics, a national report card issued Thursday shows. But the report finds that 12th graders have not made up ground they lost in math over the past decade.

The report card was issued by the National Assessment of Education Progress, an agency of the U.S. Department of Education charged by Congress with periodically reporting to the public on the educational progress of American students.

In its 2000 report on mathematics, reviewers found that, over the last decade, standardized test scores of 4th and 8th grade students across the United States have consistently risen above proficient and basic levels. Accordingly, the percent below the basic level has steadily declined.

At the advanced 12th grade level, the percentage of students at or above the levels of proficient or basic rose between 1999 and 2000. That's the good news. The bad news is the percentage of 12th grade students excelling in math was higher in 1990.

Gary Phillips is acting Commissioner of the National Assessment Education Progress. Mr. Phillips thinks the reason is there are not as many students dropping out of school these days. That means that students who don't understand math, but are passed from grade to grade anyway, will drag the average scores down.

Mr. Phillips says the panel's test results are consistent with a 30-year trend, both in the United States and in other countries.

"This is also consistent with an international study that we conducted the Third International Math and Science Study in which the United States started out... above the international average at grade 4 and by grade 12, we were below the international average," he said.

In the 12th grade, Commissioner Gary Phillips says, there were significant gaps in testing between white and black students, and white and Hispanic students.

He says what may have been holding students back are teachers who didn't know how to teach math and courses that were too simple.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige is encouraged by the national math assessment, to a point.

"The picture is moderately positive," he said. "Over the past decade, the scores of 4th and 8th graders and, to a lesser extent, 12th graders shows improvement. Despite this improvement though, it's clear that a quarter of the 4th and 8th graders performed above the proficient level on this exam and we're not doing as well as we need to."

The math report card also points to progress in individual states. Secretary Paige notes that states that have used incentives and held schools individually accountable reported significant improvement in test results.

Student photos courtesy of Art Today