Teachers Pushing Harder on Algebra and Functions
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Of five major content areas covered in math classes — numbers and operations, measurement, geometry, data and statistics, and algebra and functions — teachers are putting a bigger emphasis particularly on algebra and functions in math class beyond what they were doing a dozen years earlier. And in science, students are discussing the kinds of problems engineers solve more frequently. Those results came from a recent study published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress on how classroom instruction has evolved. The comparisons were made in assessments done in 2015 and previous testing years among students in grades 4, 8 and 12.
NAEP, the division of the U.S. Department of Education that produces the "Nation's Report Card," found that the "heavy emphasis" on algebra and functions at grade 4 were 23 percentage points higher in 2015 than in 2003 (49 percent compared to 26 percent). For grade 8, the difference was seven percentage points, 91 percent in 2015 versus 84 percent in 2009, the first year in which that question was asked in that grade level.
Larger shares of lower-performing fourth-grade students had teachers who said they placed "little or no emphasis" on algebra and functions — 7 percent of those who came in below basic achievement level compared to 5 percent for those students who came in at or above proficient achievement level. Similar differences were found in emphasis on measurement (9 percent versus 6 percent) and geometry (8 percent versus 5 percent).
At grade 8, larger percentages of lower-performing students had teachers who reported placing heavy emphasis on numbers and operations, measurement and geometry compared to higher-performing students — 3 percent compared to 6 percent, 31 percent versus 36 percent and 10 percent compared to 17 percent, respectively.
Among 12th graders, higher percentages of students who said they had been accepted into four-year colleges also reported taking more advanced math courses (pre-calculus and calculus, algebra II and trigonometry) than those who said they hadn't been accepted (68 percent compared to 28 percent).
In the area of science, the share of fourth graders who at least once or twice a month discussed the kinds of problems that engineers solve was 16 percentage points higher in 2015 compared to 2009 (48 percent versus 32 percent). That was the biggest learning shift among 10 forms of scientific inquiry-related classroom activities the survey asked about. For students who measured below the basic achievement level, a higher percentage of teachers said they hardly ever or never have students discuss engineer-caliber problems compared to the share of teachers with students who scored at or above the proficient level (56 percent versus 49 percent).
There was definite variation in the types of classroom activities undertaken (or not) by teachers of fourth graders who came in at or above the proficient level compared to those who came in below the basic achievement level in the NAEP science tests. For example, there was a nine-point difference between teachers who never or hardly ever talked about measurements and results from hands-on science activities (21 percent for students below basic achievement versus 12 percent for students at or above proficient achievement).
A comparable variation showed up in fourth graders whose teachers hardly ever or never had them figure out different ways to solve scientific problems (28 percent of students below basic achievement compared to 21 percent for students at or above proficient achievement).
The gap was nearly as wide in these areas:
Doing hands-on activities in science (14 percent versus six percent);
Teaching scientific methods (37 percent versus 29 percent);
Developing systematic observation skills (40 percent versus 32 percent); and
Developing inquiry skills (31 percent versus 23 percent);
For eighth graders, the changes weren't quite so dramatic. Once again, the percentage of students who discussed the kinds of problems engineers tackle — at least once or twice a month — showed the largest swing, up to 43 percent in 2015 from 37 percent in 2009.
There was a 24-point difference among 12th graders who reported being accepted into a four-year college and taking coursework in biology, chemistry and physics since the eighth grade compared to those who hadn't been accepted (55 percent versus 24 percent).
The detailed results, including state-level details and coverage of reading assessments, is openly available on the NAEP website.