- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

American students enjoy math and think they are good at the subject, but their knowledge of the subject falls short of their self-assessment, according to a report released this week.

Almost 40 percent of American eighth-graders “agree a lot” with the statement, “I usually do well in mathematics,” exceeding the international average of 27 percent. Those students, however, scored only about 8 percent higher than the worldwide average on an international math test, according to the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank.

Singapore’s eighth-graders scored highest on the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam, but only 18 percent of them strongly agreed in a survey that they usually did well in math. Even the least confident Singaporean students scored higher than the most confident American eighth-graders.

Tom Loveless, author of the report, said the U.S. should adjust standards so American students understand how they measure up to international students.

“If they’re not learning it, we need to be honest with them,” he said. “There’s no reason that American students can’t perform as well as Singapore students.”

Mr. Loveless also found that students who do well in math don’t necessarily like the subject. The 10 countries with the fewest students who strongly agreed that they enjoy mathematics scored above the international test average. U.S. eighth-graders’ enthusiasm for math was slightly lower than the international average, while U.S. fourth-graders enjoyed math a bit more than average.

Math tests and survey questions were given to eighth-graders in 46 nations and fourth-graders in 25 nations. Teachers also answered survey questions about their education methods. The National Center for Education Statistics’ Web site showed that 19,000 U.S. students took the TIMSS in 2003.

Mr. Loveless blamed the disjuncture between U.S. pupils’ achievement levels and their self-assessment on lax U.S. grading and attempts at “relevance.”

“There’s nothing wrong with making sure kids are confident in themselves or enjoy math,” Mr. Loveless said. “The bottom line is they need to learn math.”

He thinks teachers should spend less time applying math to everyday life and use fewer pictures and games, instead mimicking more-challenging curricula elsewhere in the world. The study found that teachers in countries with higher test scores did not emphasize relevancy.

Mr. Loveless has been recommending such changes “for quite a few years,” said Michael Pearson, director of programs and services at the Mathematical Association of America. Mr. Pearson instead advocates a balance between traditional mathematics and what some call “fuzzy math.”

“I think that it’s absolutely essential for students to have a basic knowledge of facts,” he said. “On the other hand, I’d also like my students to be able to reason about the mathematics that they know and to apply that mathematics.”

Francis “Skip” Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and an education professor at McDaniel College in Maryland, said teachers must work in the context of students’ cultures and age levels.

“We use the phrase ‘real-world mathematics.’ Well, whose world is it?” he asked.

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