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Gains in math go unnoticed

By John Published: March 28, 2011
Second grade teacher Marianne Pramuka watches as one of her students Josh Sutor works on a math problem at the smart board in class Forest Hill Elementary on Thursday in Akron. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal)

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

In the coming debate over education policy in Ohio, the argument will probably be raised that we've been throwing tons of money at education and it doesn't work because the lousy test scores haven't budged in decades.

The test scores are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a measure of student achievement often praised as the ''gold standard'' of testing because the exams are more or less consistent over time and throughout the country, unlike state achievement tests.

Critics of public education often cite NAEP statistics to paint the schools in a miserable light.

But the NAEP data also tell a story of remarkable progress in mathematics, both in this state and across the country, that most Ohioans probably have never heard.

So why haven't those gains especially for African-American students been trumpeted from the rooftops?

In a word: politics.

Just last week, a state legislator introduced a bill to bring Teach for America to Ohio schools by disparaging the mathematics achievement of Ohio's eighth-graders. (Teach for America recruits recent college graduates from top universities and places them in classrooms in low-income urban and rural school districts.)

''The 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress, sometimes referred to as our nation's report card, stated that only 36 percent of Ohio eighth-graders scored proficient or better in mathematics,'' says a news release by Rep. Courtney Combs, R-Hamilton.

What Combs didn't say was that in 1990, only 15 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above on that test.

The typical eighth-grader in 2009 scored better on the math test than three out of four students did in 1990.

The typical black eighth-grader in 2009 scored better on the test than 82 percent of black students taking the same test in 1990.

Ohio's fourth-graders have made
even greater strides since 1992, when they were first tested.

The typical Ohio fourth-grader in 2009 scored better than about 80 percent of all fourth-graders who took the math test in 1992.

And the average black fourth-grader in 2009 scored better than 83 percent of the black students who took the test in 1992.

Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and former national education columnist of the New York Times, described Ohio's math gains as ''truly extraordinary.''

The national statistics reflect similar gains in math, a point Rothstein made on the Economic Policy Institute's website dressing down Microsoft founder Bill Gates' opinion piece on education published Feb. 28 in the Washington Post.

''No rational reading of these NAEP data can support Bill Gates' claim that 'student achievement has remained virtually flat' over the last four decades,'' Rothstein wrote.

For researchers

The U.S. Department of Education sponsors the NAEP tests, which began in 1969. The tests aren't given every year, they're not given to every student and even the students who take them complete only a portion and never see their individual scores.

But the tests provide researchers with valid statewide and national samples to describe broad trends in learning.

Dividing the range of test scores into levels of proficiency a controversial change enacted in the late 1980s politicized the test by proscribing what students should know by a certain age.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute a charter school advocate and an Ohio charter school sponsor pushed for the proficiency levels, arguing that average scores alone couldn't tell people ''how good is good enough.''

Finn, who was on the board that oversees the NAEP test when the changes were made, has often sparred with Rothstein, who co-wrote the book Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right.

Rothstein argues that proficiency levels were adopted to make public schools look bad.

''They have no credibility,'' he said. ''They were adopted for explicitly political reasons, not for any kind of scientific reason.''

The range of SAT scores doesn't include levels of proficiency, but every college admissions officer knows the difference between a 500 SAT score and a score of nearly 600.

''This is an extraordinary gain,'' Rothstein said of the SAT comparison. ''It would take someone who was only a typical high school graduate to someone who was competitive at elite universities.'' He said that such a difference is roughly equivalent to the progress that Ohio's black fourth-graders made on the math test between 1992 and 2009.

Whatever the value of the proficiency levels, they definitely don't establish a grade level for any particular subject.

Educational historian Diane Ravitch criticized the movie Waiting for Superman which Ohio Gov. John Kasich praised in his State of the State address in a review published last November in the New York Review of Books.

''Perhaps the greatest distortion in this film is its misrepresentation of data about student academic performance. The film claims that 70 percent of eighth-grade students cannot read at grade level. This is flatly wrong.''

Reading stagnation

Although students nationally are doing much better today than they used to on math, gains in reading have not been so dramatic, especially at the eighth-grade level.

In Ohio, the average score for reading barely changed between 2002, the earliest year available on that test, and 2009.

Akron Public Schools recognized that its students needed a stronger foundation in reading, so the district focused federal stimulus money on improving literacy in kindergarten through second grade.

Assistant Superintendent Ellen McWilliams said she didn't know why reading scores weren't better at the eighth-grade level.

She speculated that it might reflect a general attitude that schools shouldn't keep trying to teach reading skills to older students and should instead focus on basic survival literacy, such as finding information in text.

''That's an old-school view of reading. We don't subscribe to that whatsoever,'' McWilliams said. ''We have reading and literacy classes all the way up through high school.''

On March 14, the day before the state budget was released, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute showed a slide of flat lines for fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores in a presentation about school funding given at Cleveland State University. There was no slide shown about the math gains.

''Normally, honest to God, I show both slides, but I was told to do this in three minutes, so I left the math one out and I just put in reading,'' said Terry Ryan, Fordham's vice president for Ohio programs and policy.

''Normally I say, look, in reading, it's been flat for a decade, and in math it's been some marginal increases, but nothing commensurate with the amount of resources we've put into it.''

''Marginal'' wasn't the word that George Bohrnstedt used to describe Ohio's math gains. He's the chairman of the NAEP Validities Study Panel for the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal source for education data.

When asked whether they were significant, he said: ''Yes, without question.''

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or Read the education blog at



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