Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mixed Messages on Math, as 12th-Graders Falter ; Latest Test Scores Show Improvement in Early Years, but High Schoolers Still Lag

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mixed Messages on Math, as 12th-Graders Falter ; Latest Test Scores Show Improvement in Early Years, but High Schoolers Still Lag

Article excerpt

For the past 30 years, the surest sign that education reform has been making a difference has been student achievement in mathematics.

While scores in reading have barely budged - despite big changes in curriculum and heavy public investment - math gains have been strong and consistent across regions, racial and ethnic groups, and grade levels.

That trend is continuing - with important exceptions - according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's most respected and comprehensive test.

Results of the NAEP 2000 Mathematics Assessment, released yesterday, show that 4th- and 8th-graders are ahead of where they were in 1996, but 12th-graders lost ground in the last four years. And large gaps in achievement between white and minority students have persisted.

Next step in school reform?

The lack of progress among high schoolers, to some experts, suggests that school-reform efforts have focused too much on younger grades, and not enough on following through in the teen years.

"High schools are very hard to change, because of their departmental structure," says Jack Jennings, director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. "Reformers go where it is easy, which is toward the early end of schooling."

That may be changing. More federal funding is beginning to come on line for high school reform. And foundations are looking hard at what can be done in middle school and high schools.

But the scores released yesterday appear to throw cold water on expectations that efforts to improve early-childhood education, made in past years, would by now ripple upward and boost high-school performance.

Education experts see many factors that make high schools the most difficult level of American education to improve:

* They are big (some top 5,000 students) and sometimes dangerous.

* For students who have fallen behind, the sense of frustration and failure can run deep. The practice of tracking, in which students are segregated by skill levels, lowers the expectations of many students.

* For teachers and would-be reformers, bureaucratic lethargy can stifle efforts to change. …

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