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Math Scores Lackluster U.S. Students ‘Getting Better’ But Still ‘Need Improvement’

The mathematics skills of American students are improving, but the national math grade still isn’t world-class and “needs improvement,” the Education Department said Thursday.

The study, which assessed the progress of students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades, was the first national measurement of math performance since 1992.

Some 64 percent of fourth-graders, 62 percent of eighth-graders and 69 percent of 12th-graders have basic math skills, the study shows. That is up from 59 percent of fourth-graders, 58 percent of eighth-graders and 64 percent of 12th-graders in 1992.

But on the more ambitious goal of mastery in math, the latest scores are discouragingly low. Just 21 percent of fourth-graders, 24 percent of eighth-graders and 16 percent of 12th-graders showed high levels of competency in the most challenging math areas.

Still, students in nearly all of the 44 reporting states and the Defense Department’s overseas schools made progress in basic math skills. Delaware, the District of Columbia and Guam were the only jurisdictions reporting decreases.

“The scores are getting better, but they also show us why every child should be tested based on these standards,” President Clinton told business leaders at the White House.

Clinton used the occasion to push again for an administration proposal that all eighth-graders voluntarily be tested nationwide starting in 1999.

The study measured student math scores on a scale of 0-500, scored from a standardized test developed with help from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The average score was 224 for fourth-graders, 272 for eighth-graders and 304 for 12th-graders.

Gail Burrell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, was not satisfied with the results. She implored teachers to work harder at teaching children how to think.

“This is not enough,” she said. “Too many of our nation’s students continue to demonstrate inadequate achievement.”

Burrell, a teacher in Milwaukee, recommended that students begin learning algebra skills in the second grade so that by the sixth grade, they will understand the basic concepts and will have learned algebra by the eighth grade. “I believe firmly that every child can learn that math.”

But children aren’t even getting the chance to learn algebra in many cases, educators complain. They say that only a small minority of math courses in the United States focus on advanced concepts such as algebra, while in Japan, most courses do.

The lack of making students develop thinking and problem-solving skills is at the heart of the low numbers, according to Education Secretary Richard Riley.


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