Wednesday, March 02, 2005


I usually quote that about 30% of the US adult population cannot deal with percentages, and that about 20% cannot even work out a change for a purchase. But tonight I wondered where did those figures come from.

After a while of Google, I found this table of mathematical proficiency of 8-graders for the year 2000 compared to 1990. I was unable to find the most current data, or data for 12-graders, but even then the numbers hurt big time to read. Go down to the bottom, and you will see that if you are supposed to be proficient at math to the point that you can use it on real-life problems, you need to be in the column that says proficient or above \4\. If you fall into the two columns to the left, you cannot use math for real-life problems.

Now this is data from 2000, but again I do not think that things have changed that much since then. Look at the first four columns. If from 1990 to 2000 it is the case that average proficiencies have not improved by more than 10% in general terms, I think it's more or less safe to assume they have not improved more than 10% in general terms from 2000 to 2005. So what follows should be more or less accurate to within 10%.

Now let's take some examples of what the data in the table means.

In 2000, the state with students with the best mathematics proficiency percentage was Minnesota with 40%. That means that the best we could do in 2000 was 60% of 8-graders unable to apply mathematics to real-life problems.

This is a sorry state of affairs. But there's more.

The District of Columbia, where so many important decisions are made, produced just 6% of mathematically proficient 8-graders in the year 2000. Isn't it scorchingly painful to realize that, where things like taxes are decided, 94% of 8-graders could not apply math to real-life problems? Only Guam and American Samoa scored lower, with 4% and 1% respectively.

Other states score double-digits, except Mississippi with 8%. So the national average, considering the population of each state, is somewhere between 1% and 40% - let's say 25%. Are we really ok with 75% of mathematical lack of proficiency?

I wish I could find the data for adults, because some books mention that 4-graders usually score above international average, 8-graders usually score equivalently to international average, and 12-graders usually score worse than international average.

The responsibility to take care of what our previous generations have built and worked for is falling on progressively weaker shoulders. That responsibility calls for mathematical proficiency because of things like our yearly individual and national budget.

So without the skills, what can we expect to be successful at? And before we put all the blame on students or schools, see also how we have managed to get textbooks written.

How is this going to be different from Europe's Dark Age? Keep in mind that this time we have nuclear weapons to play our crusade/holy inquisition games with.


PKD said...

I'm still lost in the blizzard's bellowing misery.

Ian Bicking said...

There's actually a very good chance that Americans fair better in adulthood. Sadly I've had a hard time finding the report I read many years ago, but it tested adults for scientific literacy, and Americans scored well above both Europeans and Japanese -- sure, they were all probably below 25%, but Americans still did notably better. Of course 100 years ago we'd have had 0% literacy, because no one would know what DNA was, or many of the other items on that test; it seems facetious, but I think it's important to remember. 30 years ago computer literacy was close to 0%. Education needs have changed radically over time. For example, "illiteracy" (with reference to reading) is based on a much higher standard now that it was 50 years ago.

None of this is to say that American education isn't terribly flawed, but I think we often give far too much credit to foreign education systems. Progressive education -- which has had considerable influence over modern education, even if many important concepts are not carried through to public eductaion -- it can be argued that it has emphasized skills that can be maintained through adulthood, even though they may not be well represented on tests. Something like the ability to make rough estimates (which is hard to test, though it does appear on tests) is far more important than being able to solve the symbolic/mathematical constraints of algebra, or perhaps even calculate accurate percentages.

Andres said...

I am afraid that my comment about Europe's Dark Age was misunderstood. I meant the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance (roughly speaking).

Ah, such despicable times where anything but scientific thinking roamed the Old World - that's why I had also mentioned crusades and holy inquisitions.

At any rate, I am afraid that comparisons are not worth much. Even if we were doing better, we won't get anywhere with math competency figures like these.

We do not seem to be doing well, period.

Andres said...

I'd like to add the following observation from the table I referenced. There are proficiency averages on the left columns. Now, the District of Columbia scores 234, while Minnesota scores 288.

Do those numbers really tell you that in D.C. only 6% of 8-graders can apply math to real life, while in Minnesota that percentage is 40%?

In fact, the only score below 200 is American Samoa, the worst performer with a proficiency of 1%!

I can't help feeling these scores were designed so that, because from worst to best the scores are 195 to 288, no bad score makes you feel how bad it is because when compared to others it's not too far away. Take a look:

1% proficiency = 195
6% proficiency = 234
26% proficiency = 274
40% proficiency = 288

I do not know how the scores were designed, so probably I am missing something important here - or maybe not.

Finally, the first line of the table shows that the average 8-grader math proficiency in the United States is 26% - something I missed but estimated correctly at 25%.