Why Are Americans’ Math Skills Slipping?

Unlike many people in the country, Lindsey Henderson was thrilled by what she saw in the latest international test scores.

A secondary mathematics specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, Henderson was asked to interpret the results of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, for the state. When there’s positive results about Utah that her bosses want to put out, they will get advanced notice, she says, and so she got a tap on the shoulder to check out the PISA results.

Utah students performed relatively well, Henderson says, and above the international average. There was very little change from the last round of testing, held in 2018. In an analysis of the loss of lifetime income from missed learning based on the PISA results, which Henderson pointed to when asked about her enthusiasm, Utah saw less of a hit than every other state. Henderson says this just adds to the evidence she’s seen from other assessments, including NAEP and AP performance, which she claims make a case that Utah’s math instruction is working.

If accurate, it makes Utah an exception.

The PISA exam — an attempt to evaluate education systems around the world by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — appraises 15-year-old students from around the globe. The results can cause competitiveness and ruminations about world rankings.

Nationally, the results were bleaker than they might seem. When the scores for math, reading and science were released this month, it was held as evidence that the billions of dollars of investment the Biden administration pumped into education during the pandemic was effective. The proof? The U.S. had moved up in the rankings — to 26th, up from 2018 when it was ranked 29th.

“Here’s the bottom line: At an extremely tough time in education, the United States moved up in the world rankings in reading, math, and science — all three categories PISA measures — while, unfortunately, many other countries saw declines,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a prepared statement.

But that hid a reality: that math capabilities have fallen since the last time the PISA test was administered. While scores in reading and science remained about the same for the U.S. as in 2018, math scores slumped.

In that way, early reactions were similar to the wrestling among American states about relative positions that occurred after last year’s national test revealed a historic drop in math scores for fourth and eighth graders in the U.S.

That leaves the question: What lessons are being drawn from the test results so far?

Battling Uphill

The U.S. has some of the most skilled math teachers but they are fighting uphill battles, argues Cody Patterson, an assistant professor of mathematics at Texas State University.

Unlike some of the countries that top the PISA list, the U.S. doesn’t have a national math curriculum, Patterson says. Its approach is fragmented and controlled locally. While consistent with American culture, which wants to preserve autonomy for local educators, that can make it hard to collaborate across school systems, he says. From his perspective, that means the nation’s system is leaving improvements and insights on the table.

But American schools also have a teacher retention problem right now. Surveys of schools suggest that nearly half feel understaffed, and the turnover rate for American teachers has increased, with some observers noting that effective teachers are particularly likely to leave the profession.

Teaching K-12 math requires tremendous skill, Patterson says. It takes years to build that, and a lot of it has to happen on the job, he adds.

Now, schools are relying on new teachers, or increasingly on teachers with alternative or emergency credentials. In Texas, where Patterson is an assistant professor, the number of teachers hired without any certification or permit from the state was 28.8 percent last school year, according to the Texas Education Agency. Patterson adds that math and science are especially prone to teacher shortages, whether due to attrition, recruitment difficulties, or just growing demand.

“It’s devastating, because you’re losing a lot of accumulated expertise that could benefit the kids who are in those classrooms,” Patterson says.

But there are other, knotted problems.

Be More Critical

For math, PISA stresses critical thinking and real-world problem-solving.

After looking through the materials released by PISA, Patterson noted that many of the questions were focused on real-world contexts, and the problems were often wordy. Students have to sift through lengthy narratives and descriptions to understand what a question is asking.

“I think, ‘Gosh, no wonder in the U.S. that we’re not performing well,’” Patterson says.

The biggest stumbling block to teachers feeling like they’re enabled to teach practical problem-solving is the metrics that they’re being judged by, according to Patterson. In American instruction, he notes, there is a greater emphasis on problems that are purely computational and that require skills easier to measure. These are about the execution of procedures that are less cognitively demanding and usually have just one valid approach, or at least just one that students will know, he says.

Other analysts agree that an inordinate focus on how to perform math procedures might have led to inadequate attention on building students’ conceptual understanding, in a way that might have impacted the PISA scores.

PISA is designed to be a test of applying knowledge, says Ross Wiener, executive director of Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program. That contrasts with approaches that emphasize rote memorization and the regurgitating of information. But the conceptual understanding is an important aspect of children learning to see themselves as interested in math and therefore motivated to engage more deeply with it, he says. “If we’re not preparing young people to apply knowledge in their lives, in the real world, then I think we need to revisit our goals,” Wiener adds.

In Wiener’s perspective, when students seem more interested than ever in knowing the relevance of lessons for their lives, increasing math achievement in the country might mean overcoming a culture where math is viewed as a chore.

“The default in American education has been you just sort of have to eat your broccoli. This might not be fun but you’re going to need it to do more advanced courses to go to college,” Wiener says. He argues that the country really needs to figure out how to teach mathematics in ways that directly engage students, build motivation and are explicit about the relevance and the meaningfulness of having mathematics in your toolkit.

In the meantime, some educators are looking around for immediate lessons.

Henderson, of Utah, credits her state’s success in part to the fact that Utah is one of the only states to mandate an integrated secondary math curriculum. Every school that receives state funds has to teach integrated standards through high school, she says.

Included in that curriculum is an emphasis on “essential skills” like real-world application of math, she says. It’s something that state leaders and educators heard from industry leaders, parents and students that they want.

But ultimately, what works is hard to parse.

“Everybody wants to know what the secret sauce is. And it’s this giant system that has lots of variables in it,” Henderson says, adding that she usually tells people it was the resilience of the students, teachers, administrators and parents that helped Utah’s math scores stay strong during the pandemic.

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