2004 November 29 Monday
NAEP Math Tests Are Too Easy

The NAEP tests for comparing educational progress across schools are too easy.

Washington, D.C., (November 18, 2004) A new report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution finds that math items on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math assessment lack challenging arithmetic, often requiring skills that are several years below grade level. The findings cast a disturbing light on recent highly-publicized math gains as measured by the NAEP assessment.

Despite sharply rising test scores on both the NAEP Math and most state math tests, the Brown Center's analysis of the difficulty of the math items at fourth and eighth grade demonstrates that the NAEP test fails to assess essential arithmetic skills that are required for success in algebra and higher mathematics.

"The good news is that NAEP scores have risen dramatically in mathematics over the past decade," noted Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and author of the 2004 Brown Center Report on American Education. "But, given our findings, it is unclear whether this is a significant accomplishment in terms of substantial gains in mathematics skills and knowledge."

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP as it is commonly known, assesses fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade students in math and reading. Scores on the math assessments have risen dramatically over the last 10 years, indicating that U.S. students are becoming more adept at mathematics.

But the Brown Center analysis shows that the NAEP math assessments rely on arithmetic skills that are far below the grade levels of the students being assessed. The analysis finds that almost all problem solving items use whole numbers and avoid fractions, decimals, and percentages forms of numbers that students must know how to use to tackle higher order mathematics like algebra.

Whenever you see claims that some educational gap between races is closing or that some school has made big progress in improving educational outcomes the question you should immediately ask yourself is whether some educational bureaucracy is trying to lie to you with lousy tests and deceptive statistics. More often than not the answer is "Yes". Really, I'm not exaggerating.

Middle school math teachers may not all know enough math to teach math. (PDF format)

The report also includes a national survey of middle school mathematics teachers and finds that most middle school mathematics teachers did not major in mathematics, do not hold a teaching certificate in the subject, and are not getting the kinds of professional development that will help them gain essential content knowledge.

For this analysis, the Brown Center on Education Policy surveyed a random sample of 252 middle school math teachers nationwide. The survey found that fewer than one-fourth (22%) of the teachers majored in math while in college. Additionally, less than one-half of middle school math teachers only 41% hold a teaching certificate in mathematics.

My guess is that teachers unions and the culture of educational bureaucracies prevent more talented math teachers from being paid more. People who teach harder subjects ought to get paid more since it takes more brains to master those subjects well enough to teach them. Otherwise those people smart enough to master hard subjects will decide not to go into teaching in the first place. But that common sense attitude clashes with the socialistic beliefs of the educrats.

Given the lack of financial incentives do not expect the average talent level of middle school or high school math teachers to rise dramatically any time soon. Whether that is a bad thing is hard to say. After all, many smart people who go into industry instead of into teaching will innovate, invent, and competently manage companies to produce wealth that will fund schools and a great many other things. Perhaps a better solution to the deficiencies of teacher skills is filmed lectures of the most talented teachers. Then a single great teacher could teach literally millions of kids.

You can read the full report. (PDF format)

Update: As for my contention that you can't trust the test results: Check out some evidence for teacher cheating on standard student tests.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 November 29 12:40 PM  Education

Derek Copold said at November 29, 2004 12:56 PM:

And you guys said they never take notice of IQ!

Apparently they do, or else they wouldn't have produced a test so well designed to meet their students' "needs."

Poor_Statue said at November 29, 2004 4:06 PM:


I am a middle school math teacher who never wanted to teach.

I majored in mathematics while avoiding any education-related math courses and then fell into teaching after college. I've since taken a whole bunch of education courses and passed the teacher's exam though I do not yet have my Master's.

While a part of me took offense to this post, the other part of me agreed with you. I think that most of the teacher's preparing our kids for high school math are underqualified. I often ask myself why I'm using my math degree to teach middle school for peanuts instead of to make big bucks at some company.

I don't know anything about the difficulty of the test you mentioned. We have MCAS. I think it's too hard (you can look at it yourself on the MA DOE website). I will agree, though, that our students will lack those basic arithmetic skills upon reaching high school. The 7/8 students I get can barely divide when they get to me.

Invisible Scientist said at November 30, 2004 8:16 AM:

This issue of educational qualifications, is a national security issue, and it will become even
more relevant as we move into this new century. There are emerging nations who can surpass the US
in a few of decades. If this happens, the result will have grave consequences for the survival of the
United States as free and independent a country (not conqured and enslaved.)

MichaelA said at November 30, 2004 11:19 AM:

I agree with the spirit of the post, that our school system is inadequate and its improvement is hampered by the entire edifice of educrats. However, the two statisitics cited in the Brookings study do not adequately prove that there is a crisis in math teaching.

"For this analysis, the Brown Center on Education Policy surveyed a random sample of 252 middle school math teachers nationwide. The survey found that fewer than one-fourth (22%) of the teachers majored in math while in college. Additionally, less than one-half of middle school math teachers only 41% hold a teaching certificate in mathematics."

A person who majored in engineering, applied math, computer science, statistics, physics, economics, or other math intensive disciplines might be as qualified to teach middle school math as a math major. The lack of a teaching certificate does not ncecssarily indicate that a person is not competent to teach math. It may mean that the person did not specialize in education and did not take the education courses required for certification. The efficacy of those courses is disputable.

Richard said at December 1, 2004 5:20 AM:

Invisible Scientist,

Yes it is critical. Still, nothing will really change the system. Our only hope is to change our immigration policies to an iq and math test while the US is still a place worth coming to. Score well enough and your in. Of course, that is not going to happen either.

seelow heights said at December 1, 2004 8:34 AM:

Organized special-interest groups regularly prevent logic and common-sense in government, including in the areas of education and immigration policy. How to change this? Supposed cures like terms limits and "campaign finance reform" seem to have changed nothing. In Europe proportional representation has allowed ideological minorities some voice in governmental bodies, despite the oppressive anti-free speech laws that obtain in many European countries. Laws implementing proportional representation (and similar reforms like "instant runoff") might be possible in US states with the initiative process.

Richard said at December 1, 2004 10:32 AM:

Sorry sh, I live in an initiative state and when something is proposed to change something, they circle the wagons, spend big bucks or get it kicked off the ballot in court.

The only thing that brings about change here is pain.

e.g. you will only see serious energy conservation and sustained r&d when the lights start to flicker.

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