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UPDATE: New Math Standard for Massachusetts Teachers

Elementary school teachers play a crucial role in introducing students to math, yet many of those educators struggle mightily with the task. Some elementary teachers took only a little bit of math during college—and that may have been years ago. They may have little knowledge of math and how to present it in clear and correct terms to young children.

Now Massachusetts is taking an unusual step to try to improve elementary schoolers' math skills. The state is planning to require candidates for elementary certification to receive a passing score on a math-specific subject test on the state licensure exam, as opposed to simply passing the overall assessment. Massachusetts' commissioner of educator, Mitch Chester, plans to bring the policy before the state board of education next week for approval. The new requirements would be based on a set of guidelines for improving elementary teachers' math preparation, approved by the board in 2007, according to the state department of education.

The goal is to test aspiring elementary teachers' "competence in math," Chester told me yesterday. "It's a pretty substantial standard, not a trivial standard."

Chester said he believes Massachusetts will be the first state in the country to establish a math-specific passing score on its elementary licensure test. The standard would apply to candidates seeking a grade 1-6 certificate. He also plans on establishing a math passing score for preK-8 special education teachers working with students with moderate disabilities.

The commissioner also said he was going to recommend a three-year grace period for candidates who did not meet the passing score to try again.

Policymakers, academic researchers, and others have debated strategies for improving elementary teachers' math skills for years. Is Massachusetts' plan the right one, and are other states likely to follow? How does this compare with other proposals to revamp primary grades math teaching, such as creating more elementary math "specialists," who focus only on that subject, or putting more resources into roving math coaches, who travel from school to school, helping their peers?

UPDATE: Just to catch readers up, the state board in Massachusetts did in fact approve the new requirement. Elementary teachers in the state will be expected to receive a general passing score on the test, and also a passing score on the math section. Those who fall just short of the cut-off math score will have a three-year grace period, which allows them to work with an interim license while they attempt to achieve a passing mark.

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