State lags in new math index

California has, by far, the largest percentage of eighth graders taking algebra. But that’s about all it can crow about in Education Week’s first Math Progress Index, which was published last week.

By most measures – scores on the “nation’s report card” (National Assessment of Educational Progress), improvement on those scores over the last six years,  closing the achievement gap in math, and hiring experienced math teachers – California is far behind the most successful states, and often behind the national average.

The Math Index underscores California’s high aspirations and low results in math. It’s not just demographics (lots of poor kids who don’t speak English) that is contributing to low scores and an achievement gap but also a teacher gap: placing inexperienced math teachers in the most challenging schools.

As my colleague at the foundation, retired math teacher Bob Nichols, observed in a note to me, “Only five states do a worse job than California in getting more experienced math teachers into low-income schools. North Dakota, Iowa and Washington, D.C.,  actually have a higher percentage of experienced math teachers in low-income schools than in non-poverty schools.

“Also, only five states have a lower percentage of math majors/minors teaching eighth grade math than California. So we have the highest percentage of eighth graders taking Algebra 1 and the sixth lowest percentage  of 8th grade math teachers who majored or minored in math (50 percent compared with the national average of 57 percent).”

On the 100-point index, California scored 66, slightly above the national average of 64.7. The highest scoring states – Massachusetts (78.2), Maryland (75.1) and New Hampshire (75.1) – generally scored well in all categories, measuring achievement and equity.

In the 2009 NAEP math scores, only 30.2 percent of California fourth graders were proficient in math, 42nd in the nation. Only 23.4 percent of eighth graders were proficient, 45th in the nation. But rate of improvement since 2003 also lagged behind the nation.

Among the state measures in the index:

  • 2009 NAEP test,  4th grade: 30.2%  proficient in California  vs 38.4% for U.S.
  • 2009 NAEP test,  8th grade: 23.4% proficient  32.6% for U.S.
  • 11th and 12th graders scoring  3 or higher on AP exams: 4% vs. 3.2% for U.S.
  • Improvement in 4th grade NAEP scores, 2003-’09: 4.2% vs.  5.1 percent for U.S.
  • Improvement in 8th grade NAEP scores, 2003-’09: 3.4% vs. 5.6% for U.S.
  • Percentage of eighth graders attends school where algebra is default curriculum: 54 percent vs. 18% for U.S.
  • Experience gap: percentage point difference between percentage of experienced teachers in poor schools, versus non-poor schools: 14% vs. 9% for U.S.

On the bright, what NAEP scores and the index  don’t show is the progress that California eighth graders have made in Algebra1 over the past decade.

In 2002, only 29  percent of  California seventh or eighth graders took Algebra 1; 39 percent of them tested proficient on the state’s standardized test.

In 2009, 60 percent of the students in those grades were taking Algebra 1, and 48 percent tested proficient or above. Proficiency levels rose despite larger  numbers of students taking Algebra.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *