Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mathematics Achievement Gaps

Last week the National Science Board (NSB) released the Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the 18th in a series of biennial science indicators reports. The report provides information on science, engineering, and technology at all levels, including K-12. Since I'm teaching Foundations of Mathematics Instruction this semester, I was most interested in the data regarding mathematics. A number of achievement gaps are noted at the elementary level. Here's what the report says about this.
Changes in achievement gaps are most easily summarized by examining average scale scores, which place students on a continuous ability scale based on their overall performance. Results indicate that all demographic groups gain mathematical skills and knowledge during elementary school but the rate of progress varies.
  • Gender Gaps. Boys and girls started kindergarten at the same overall mathematics performance level, but by the end of fifth grade, boys had made larger mathematics gains than girls, resulting in a small but observable gender gap of four points.
  • Race/Ethnicity Gaps. Gaps between white and black students and between white and Hispanic students existed when students started kindergarten and they widened over time. In mathematics, from kindergarten to fifth grade, white students posted a gain of 93 points; Hispanics, a gain of 89 points; and blacks, a gain of 80 points. By fifth grade, the gap between white and black students in average mathematics scores was 19 points, and the average score of black fifth grade students was equivalent to the average third grade score of white students.
  • Mother’s Education and Family Income Gaps. Students whose mothers had higher levels of education entered kindergarten with higher average mathematics scores than their peers whose mothers attained less formal education and these gaps increased as students progressed through elementary school. By grade 5, the gaps in mathematics scores were substantial, with students whose mothers had dropped out of high school posting a lower average mathematics score than students whose mothers had graduated from college had posted at grade 3. Students living in families with incomes below the poverty threshold also entered school with lower mathematics skills than their peers from higher income families, and those discrepancies in scores grew by fifth grade.
These data are startling and frankly, a bit depressing. Now, I must arm my students with this information and ask them what they intend to do about it. It should be an interesting discussion.

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