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Students' Math Abilities on the Decline

A recent nationwide test of American students concluded that students’ math skills have declined. This decline is most prevalent in grades four and eight, according to The Nation’s Report Card. Twelfth-grade students who participated in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics assessment scored lower than earlier cohorts did on the 2013 tests. This highlights the need for higher quality STEM education as students prepare for increasingly technological career fields.

Employer Demand for Math

Employers require stronger mathematics skills today than they did in the past in order to compete in the expanding global economy. Technological and organizational change and trade and industry deregulation all contribute to this rising demand.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 8% job growth in STEM occupations, more than double the rate for all occupations (3.7%), with computer occupations largely responsible for the increase.

Why the Decline?

Education officials have stated that the recent drop in scores may correlate with changes in the Common Core standards. As an example, some fourth-grade math questions may not be part of that grade’s guidelines under the Common Core, meaning teachers may not have covered those test questions in class.

Demographic changes and the ongoing achievement gap between different races and economic levels may also be a contributing factor.

The decline in U.S. families’ income may contribute as well. Poor students face challenges like hunger and homelessness, and their parents may work long hours. These issues may interfere with learning and performance at school.

Shortage Solutions

A few possible solutions to the shortfall include the following.

Companies Helping Colleges
Companies that are willing to assist schools and universities with their curriculum development may help alleviate the shortfall. CEOs in the survey stated that assisting educational institutions with their classroom instruction can be beneficial as well.

Hands-On Guidance
Seventy percent of CEOs suggested that internships for undergraduate math majors are one of the most effective ways to address the shortage. Internships can provide necessary work-related math experience prior to graduation.

Real-World Application
Math may become more appealing to students’ when they realize that it is necessary for things they are interested in such as computer programming or architecture. Students may have a definite goal in mind and discover that they need the math skills to accomplish it.

Teachers can present math problems as a story. For example, a multiplication problem such as 2 x 12: “Nicole has 2 boxes of cookies. Each box has 12 cookies inside. How many cookies does Nicole have altogether?”

Inquiry-Based Learning
Teachers who ask in-depth questions and propose scenarios can improve math comprehension by stimulating the students’ thought processes. Instructors can encourage students to discuss a math problem and to draw on their intuition.

Students may work in small groups to explore an equation, which may enable them to articulate their reasoning as they work toward an answer. When students ask questions and figure out the answer for themselves, they can internalize the underlying principles.

The numbers show that math skills are in short supply and math education in the United States needs to improve.  Graduate programs focused on math curriculum and instruction enable educators to take practical steps and make a difference.

Learn more about University of Texas at Arlington’s Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction — Mathematics Education.


The New York Times: Nationwide Test Shows Dip in Students’ Math Abilities

BLS: BTN: Why Computer Occupations are Behind Strong STEM Employment Growth in the 2019–29 Decade

The Nation’s Report Card: Nine Subjects, Three Grades, One Report Card

School News Network: Good Math Skills a Must for Good Jobs, Employers Say

Strategies for Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Inquiry Teaching: Models of Instruction

U.S.News: Why U.S. Students Are Bad at Math

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