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Stagnant Math Scores: Is Teaching the Key?

The new NAEP scores are out, and at the 4th grade level, the results do not impress. Scores were flat for the first time in nearly two decades, while the upward climb continued at the 8th grade level.

Federal officials generally caution against overinterpreting any given set of NAEP scores, but Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll said the results should provide clear incentive to focus on improving math teaching early in the K-12 cycle. Elementary and middle school teachers are usually generalists, who are asked to cover all topics, but Driscoll, who now chairs the panel that oversees NAEP, said too many teachers are not asked to show that they have a grasp of math content knowledge, particularly in state licensure requirements. And when they are asked to show that, they struggle on state certification tests, he said. Driscoll, at a press conference announcing the results, talked about his own state's efforts to toughen math-reporting requirements on teacher-certification exams. He also noted that Massachusetts had increased teacher-preparation requirements in another subject area, literacy, his point being that it can be done in math, too. There are many ideas about how to build content knowledge among elementary math teachers. Some say creating more specialists could be a key.

Driscoll backed up his argument with NAEP data: Information collected on this test shows that 8th graders whose teachers had majored in math scored 9 points better than peers taught by educators who did not.

"Strong content knowledge needs attention," said Driscoll, the head of the National Assessment Governing Board. Teachers at early grades, he added, "provide the building blocks for mathematics."

Driscoll was also asked about the link between NAEP and ongoing efforts to establish common academic standards across states. He noted the strides made by a cluster of New England states—New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—which have taken part in their own effort to establish common standards and assessments, the New England Common Assessment Program. It's reasonable to assume, Driscoll said, that those states' gains have "something to do with the standards."

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