States’ Math Standards Don’t Measure Up, Study Says

Published March 1, 2005

In a Thomas B. Fordham Foundation study published in January, states earned an average grade of a “high D” for their mathematics content standards.

“We were able to confer A grades on just three states: California, Indiana, and Massachusetts,” writes David Klein, who along with a panel of five mathematicians conducted the study. “Alabama, New Mexico, and Georgia–all receiving Bs–round out the slim list of ‘honors’ states. The national average grade is D, with 29 states receiving Ds or Fs and 15 getting Cs.”

Chester Finn Jr, president of the Fordham Foundation, writes in the foreword to the report, “the essential finding of this study is that the overwhelming majority of states today have sorely inadequate math standards.”

Nine Major Problems

The study found nine major problem areas with math content standards in most states:

  • “excessive emphasis” on calculator use;
  • failure to require students to memorize “basic number facts”;
  • absence of “standard algorithms of arithmetic for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division”;
  • inadequate standards for student understanding of fractions by late elementary and early middle school years;
  • a nearly “obsessive” focus on requiring students to identify “patterns”;
  • “the use of a dizzying array of manipulatives (physical teaching aids) in counterproductive ways”;
  • “a tendency to overemphasize estimation at the expense of exact arithmetic calculations”;
  • statistics and probability requirements “often crowd out” algebra and geometry; and
  • a failure to develop standards that guide the development of problem-solving and mathematical reasoning skills.

Lower Grades Overall

States earned lower grades overall than in Fordham’s 1998 and 2000 studies because the new report weighted mathematical content in the standards more heavily than it did previously. The earlier studies were by different authors.

Klein said, “The consensus of the evaluating panel of mathematicians is that this weighting properly reflects what is most important in K-12 standards in 2005. Content is what matters most in state standards; clear but insubstantial expectations are insufficient.”

Concrete Suggestions

For policymakers interested in improving their state’s K-12 math standards, the study offers four concrete suggestions:

  • Use true math experts to develop revised standards, rather than relying on “math educators” or “curriculum experts.”
  • Revised standards must emphasize “both conceptual understanding and computational fluency” (italics in original).
  • Eliminate easily identifiable “common problems,” “such as the overuse of calculators and manipulatives.”
  • If necessary, “consider borrowing” standards from California, Indiana, and Massachusetts, states that received As in this study. In the words of the Fordham authors, “There is no need to reinvent this wheel.”

The study was released simultaneously with Fordham’s updated report on state English standards. (See article on this page.)

Brian L. Carpenter ([email protected])is director of the leadership development initiative for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan.