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Education in States and Nations: 1991

(ESN) Indicator 19: Instructional strategies in mathematics courses

In addition to differing beliefs about "what works" best, the instructional practices employed by teachers can be influenced by cultural, social, demographic, and financial circumstances. Here we are able to present three roughly comparable measures - the percentage of school administrators who report assigning students to mathematics classes based on ability, the percentage of students reporting that they work in small groups in math class at least once per week, and the percentage of students reporting that they take a math test or quiz at least weekly. Student data for the second and third measures are based on responses by 13-year-olds in other countries and public school 8th-graders in the United States.

  • In 1992, the percentage of lower secondary school administrators reporting the use of ability grouping in math classes in the United States was higher than that in two-thirds of the other countries reporting data for 1991. The 56 percent for the United States, however, fell 36 percentage points below the 92 percent for England, the country with the highest percentage for this measure.

  • The United States' proportion of lower secondary students reporting that they solved problems in groups in math class at least weekly (49 percent) was mid-range among the 19 other countries represented here.

  • Of all the countries included here, only Taiwan had a higher percentage of lower secondary students than the United States reporting that they took a math test or quiz at least once a week. The rate for Scotland and Hungary, the nations with the smallest percentage, was about one-fourth that of the United States.

  • In general, lower secondary students in the U.S. states were more likely to report taking a math test at least once a week than were their counterparts in the other countries included. The percentage was lower in 10 of 18 other countries than in the state with the lowest percentage. Louisiana was the only nation or state where the percentage was greater than 90.

Note on interpretation:

To a great extent, assigning students to classes based on ability is only possible in larger schools, and the greater prevalence of ability grouping in the United States may be due, at least in part, to its larger average school sizes. Smaller schools can find it difficult simply to mass enough students to form grade levels, much less ability groups within grade levels. Many other countries, moreover, offer parents and students more choice in the school they can attend, thus giving them the opportunity to "ability group" themselves by school. The differentiation that occurs in many other countries among academic, vocational, and other tracks starting at the lower secondary level might be considered yet another form of ability grouping, again, between schools rather than within schools.

Table 18b Table of Contents Figure 19
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