School’s return ushers in another year of homework routines, for some a nightly battle of wills. There is good reason for parents to encourage their children’s best efforts, especially in math, as new information shows that faltering in or mastering math can be an indicator of a child’s future.
Greg Duncan, a researcher from The University of California-Irvine, found that parents often focus early attention on their child’s behavior and reading. However, Duncan concluded, “math skills are more important than any other subject in predicting a child’s long-term success.”
With that statement in mind, two measures of Hoosier students’ math performance bear close examination. In Indiana, all students in Grades 3-8 take ISTEP+ to assess their mastery of Indiana academic standards.
A sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in every state also take the National Assessment for Educational Progress. While both tests are valid and reliable, they test slightly different concepts and have differing scales of measurement.
In 2014, 83 percent of Indiana’s fourth-graders passed the ISTEP+ math section, while eighth-graders passed at a slightly lower rate, 81.9 percent.
According to the 2013 national test, 52 percent of Indiana’s fourth-graders rated at or above proficient. For eighth-graders, 38 percent scored at or above proficient. Both grade levels scored better in math than their peers nationally. That’s the good news.
The cause for concern could be found in the lower math scores for eighth-graders on both ISTEP+ and the national test compared to fourth-graders. Are students losing their math momentum?
“I don’t think it’s exactly accurate to say there’s a slide between fourth and eighth because those aren’t the same students,” said Dale Nowlin, chair of the mathematics department at Columbus North High School and a representative on the national organization governing board. “I would say for all of those statistics that we’re doing better, but we need to continue to do better and better.”
Nowlin cited a 2014 report from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy that showed Indiana’s fourth- and eighth-graders are performing two grade levels higher on the national test than their 1990 counterparts. Vince Bertram, a former school superintendent in Evansville, is president and CEO of Project Lead the Way, an organization working to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics education nationally. Bertram agrees Hoosier students are doing better, but adds that the national exam scores show many students are not proficient at math, and in his experience, fewer students are excelling in math as they progress through school.
“It’s not just preparing mathematics to take a test, but rather how it applies to their own existence,” Bertram said. “We find the integration of math into all subjects and helping students apply math in physical education or in other things around the world or in their existence, then math becomes relevant and exciting for students.”
The leadership of Jameson Camp in Indianapolis knows the value of getting kids excited about math in different contexts. As children get close to nature on field trips at Jameson Camp, they engage in outdoor activities that teach them to make graphs, figure percentages and convert temperatures between Fahrenheit and Celsius.
“It’s that whole theory if you’re having fun and you’re having to do experiential learning, it’s going to be reinforced,” said Dan Shepley, Jameson Camp’s executive director.
Jameson Camp’s lessons help students become problem solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators and communicators, which are must-have skills to succeed in our knowledge economy. These students are learning in Grades 6 to 8 what their parents used to learn in freshman algebra. Indiana’s 2013 high school graduation rate was 88.6 percent. In the 1950s, Bertram said, high schools graduated about 50 percent of their students, and those who didn’t graduate could still find good jobs, especially in manufacturing.
“I think as parents we want our children to go out and have great opportunities and great careers,” Bertram concluded. “Without proficiency in mathematics and many of these disciplines our children are going to be underserved.”
The challenge for educators and parents today is that the academic standards and the stakes for our children’s futures are so much higher. Encouraging our students to meet the challenge will serve them, and our society well.