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Access to Challenging Math Courses Varies Widely, Study Says

U.S. students typically encounter an easier math curriculum than those in many other nations, a new study finds, with wide differences also seen across states and school districts. These differences, the study suggests, appear to take a heavy toll on student achievement.

The analysis, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Education, drew on data from the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which included 13 U.S. school districts and nine states, as well nearly 40 other nations.

"Overall, U.S. students are exposed to a less difficult school mathematics curriculum that places them at a disadvantage when compared to the students in many other countries of the world," write the researchers, led by William H. Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University. "Even sadder, a student's mathematics learning opportunities related to content coverage are deeply affected by where the student lives and in which of the 13 local school districts or nine states he or she attends school."

The variations seen in math curriculum were correlated with students' overall 8th grade math achievement. Students in those states and districts with less demanding math coursework performed much worse than those who faced a more challenging curriculum, according to the study by researchers both at Michigan State University and the University of Oklahoma. The differences were most apparent in those districts with high concentrations of students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, such as those living in poverty. However, the contrast was still evident even after controlling for student background, including a measure of students' 7th grade achievement.

"The consequences are clear—less opportunity to learn challenging mathematics corresponds to lower achievement," the study says.

The authors argue that the heart of the problem is systemic and tied to the structure and design of the U.S. education system.

"The threat embodied in our current system is not just that some children or students may be left behind," the authors say. "The more serious threat may well be that entire districts and states and the children ... in them may be left behind because of the specific mathematics content decisions those districts and states have made."

Speaking of math, my colleague Michelle Davis recently wrote about Project K-Nect, a grant-funded program that has adopted smartphones as teaching tools in some math classes. Research on the program has shown a measurable effect on students' math achievement and their interest in the subject, she writes.

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