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March 1999

**Authors:** Julia H. Mitchell, Evelyn F. Hawkins, Pamela M. Jakwerth, Frances B. Stancavage (*American Institutes for Research*), and John A. Dossey (*Illinois State University*)

Download any section of the full report in a PDF file for viewing and printing.

This report has presented three types of information derived from the NAEP 1996 mathematics assessment: 1) information on what students know and can do in mathematics, 2) information on course-taking patterns and current classroom practices in this subject area, and 3) information on student attitudes about mathematics. The first portion of this information is derived from an analysis of student performance on the actual assessment exercises; the latter two portions draw upon the questionnaires completed by the students who participated in the assessment and their mathematics teachers.

The chapters on student work were organized around the five content strands assessed by NAEP: Number Sense, Properties, and Operations; Measurement; Geometry and Spatial Sense; Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability; and Algebra and Functions. Within these chapters, the discussion also highlighted students' proficiency on a number of cognitive skills that cut across the different content areas. These include conceptual understanding, procedural knowledge, and problem solving, as well as the ability to reason in mathematical situations, to communicate perception and conclusions drawn from a mathematical context, and to connect the mathematical nature of a situation with related mathematical knowledge and information gained from other disciplines or through observation.

In 1990, NAEP gathered baseline achievement data for fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students, using a newly developed mathematics framework. Two subsequent assessments, based on the same framework and administered in 1992 and 1996, offered the opportunity to track trends in achievement. The results have been promising, indicating statistically significant improvements in overall mathematics performance at all three grade levels and in each of the five content strands. The gains were largest between 1990 and 1992, but additional gains also were evident between 1992 and 1996 on the overall composite scale and for some of the content strands. Specifically, student performance in Geometry and Spatial Sense and in Algebra and Functions improved at all grade levels; performance in Number Sense, Properties, and Operations and in Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability improved at fourth grade; and student performance in Measurement and in Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability improved at twelfth grade. When the achievement trends were disaggregated by race and gender, the direction of change still was generally positive for most comparisons. However, trend comparisons for some of the smaller or more diverse groups did not achieve statistical significance; as a result, one cannot say with certainty that these gains did not simply reflect chance variation due to sampling.

In 1996, gender differences in performance favoring males were observed for overall proficiency and three content strands at grade 4 (Number Sense, Properties, and Operations; Measurement; and Algebra and Functions) and for two content strands at grade 12 (Measurement, and Geometry and Spatial Sense).

In 1996, White and Asian/Pacific Islander students at grades 4 and 12
and White students at grade 8 performed better than other racial/ethnic groups overall and in
each of the content strands of mathematics.^{[1]} Hispanic students performed better than Black
students in Geometry and Spatial Sense at grade 4; in Measurement and in Geometry and
Spatial Sense at grade 8; and in Measurement and in Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability
at grade 12. American Indian students performed better than Black and Hispanic students in
all strands at grade 4 and outperformed Black students in all content strands and Hispanic
students in all strands but Geometry and Spatial Sense at grade 8. At grade 12, Asian/Pacific
Islander students performed better than White students in Algebra and Functions.

In general, taking more mathematics courses and more advanced mathematics courses were associated with improved mathematics performance in all content strands. Eighth-grade students enrolled in algebra performed better in all content strands than eighth-grade students enrolled in pre-algebra or eighth-grade mathematics, and eighth-grade students enrolled in pre-algebra performed better than students enrolled in eighth-grade mathematics in all but one of the content strands (Geometry and Spatial Sense).

Twelfth-grade results show a similar story. Students at any given point in the algebra-through-calculus sequence performed better than students whose mathematics exposure had stopped at the next lowest course in the sequence with one exception: students whose highest course had been pre-algebra did not perform significantly better than students who had taken neither pre-algebra nor algebra. Similarly, students who had taken geometry performed better in all content strands than those who had not taken geometry.

In addition, taking more mathematics courses in high school was related to higher mathematics performance, with one exception: students who took 3 - 4 semesters of mathematics did not perform significantly better in Measurement than students who took only 1 - 2 semesters.

Students scoring in the *Basic* achievement
level or above appeared to grasp many of the fundamental concepts and properties of and
relationships between numbers, and displayed the skills required for manipulating numbers and
completing computations. Questions assessing proportional thinking, requiring multistep
solutions, or involving new concepts tended to be more difficult. Additionally, questions requiring
students to solve problems and communicate their reasoning proved challenging, and often it was
the communication aspect that provided the most challenge.

Many of the measurement questions were difficult for students, particularly those requiring unit conversions, calculations of volume and circumference, and estimation.

Eighth-grade algebra students tended to perform better than other eighth-grade
students, whereas eighth-grade students in pre-algebra or eighth-grade mathematics tended to
perform similarly. At the twelfth-grade level, students whose highest course was second-year
algebra tended to outperform those who had only reached first-year algebra, and students who
reported calculus as their highest mathematics course tended to perform better than those who
had taken less advanced mathematics courses.^{[2]}

Most of the questions in this content strand required a drawn or written response, and many were difficult for students. Questions in this content strand also relied upon students' visual-spatial skills. In several of the sample questions, a significant difference was found between the performance of male and female students. Here also, eighth-grade algebra students tended to outperform other eighth-grade students, whereas eighth-grade students in pre-algebra and those in eighth-grade mathematics performed similarly. In addition, on some of the questions, twelfth-grade students who had taken at least second-year algebra outperformed those who had not and, similarly, students who had taken at least third-year algebra or pre-calculus outperformed those who had not.

In this content strand, students seemed to perform better on questions that asked them to make straightforward interpretations of graphs, charts, and tables as opposed to those requiring them to perform calculations with displayed data. Students had difficulty explaining why one method of reporting or displaying data was better than another, even though they may have recognized which was the better method. Questions asking students to determine chance or probability also were difficult.

The majority of students at all grade levels appeared to understand basic algebraic representations and simple equations, as well as how to find simple patterns. The more proficient students at grades 8 and 12 were able to demonstrate knowledge of linear equations, algebraic functions, and trigonometric identities, but even those students found that questions requiring them to identify and generalize complex patterns and solve real-world problems were challenging. In general, for eighth- and twelfth-grade students, those with more advanced coursework performed better in this content strand.

In 1996, the modal group, but not the majority, of eighth-grade students, regardless of whether they were male or female, were enrolled in eighth-grade mathematics, and most of the remaining students were enrolled in pre-algebra or algebra. Trends over time show increases in the percentage of eighth-grade students taking more advanced mathematics courses.

These positive trends also were evident at the twelfth-grade level. For example, the 1996 percentage of twelfth-grade students enrolled in mathematics was significantly higher than the 1990 percentage. In addition, over time more students appear to be initially taking first-year algebra earlier in their school careers. Examination of the highest course taken by twelfth-grade students in an algebra-through-calculus sequence showed that in 1996, almost half of the twelfth-grade students indicated second-year algebra as their highest course taken. In the remaining half, fewer students indicated a course higher than second-year algebra as their highest course taken than indicated a lower level course as their highest course taken.

In 1996, teachers of fourth- and eighth-grade students were asked about the emphasis they placed on different mathematics content and processes in their mathematics instruction. The majority of fourth- and eighth-grade students were receiving mathematics instruction with more emphasis on Number Sense, Properties, and Operations; Measurement; and Geometry and Spatial Sense than on Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability; and Algebra and Functions. Perhaps as expected, more emphasis was placed on Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability and on Algebra and Functions at the eighth-grade level than at the fourth-grade level. In all of the eighth-grade mathematics classes, students experienced similar levels of emphasis on the mathematics content strands, except for Algebra and Functions, which was more heavily emphasized in the algebra classes. Mathematics instruction at grades 4 and 8 placed more emphasis on learning mathematics facts and concepts and on learning skills and procedures needed to solve routine problems than on developing reasoning ability or on learning how to communicate ideas in mathematics effectively.

Teachers of fourth- and eighth-grade students, as well as twelfth-grade students, were asked about a variety of instructional practices that were being implemented in their mathematics classes. In 1996, results showed differences in the frequencies of implementation of some practices at different grade levels. For example, working with objects like rulers and other manipulatives was more common at the fourth-grade level and in less advanced mathematics courses taken by eighth-grade students. Similarly, the majority of fourth- and eighth-grade students worked at least once a week with other students to solve mathematics problems, while this type of structured interaction was less frequent among twelfth-grade students.

Reports on these practices over time show some significant changes. For example, while the practice of writing a few sentences about how to solve a mathematics problem was relatively rare among fourth-grade students, there have been increases in frequency over time. On average, few students at grades 4 and 8 were writing reports or doing mathematics projects, but changes over time show increases in the frequency of implementation of this practice also.

In 1996, the frequency with which calculators were used increased with increasing grade level and with mathematics content at the eighth-grade level. Furthermore, the use of calculators has increased over time. The majority of eighth- and twelfth-grade students taking mathematics reported using scientific calculators to do schoolwork. At the eighth-grade level, the use of scientific and graphing calculators was more common in the higher level mathematics courses than in the lower level courses. A majority of the twelfth-grade students taking mathematics reported using graphing calculators, although only about one in ten eighth-grade students did. In addition, the unrestricted use of calculators and the use of calculators on mathematics tests were more common among eighth-grade than fourth-grade students and among eighth-grade students in higher level mathematics courses than among those in lower level courses.

Finally, students in grade 12 reported being tested more frequently in mathematics than teachers reported that fourth- and eighth-grade students were tested. Teachers of grades 4 and 8 reported less testing with multiple-choice questions than with constructed-response questions and less use of individual or group projects than of written responses. Teachers' use of portfolios was more common with fourth- than with eighth-grade students.

The NAEP 1996 mathematics assessment probed student attitudes and beliefs about mathematics. In particular, it examined students' agreement with three specific statements: "I like mathematics"; "If I had a choice, I would not study any more mathematics"; and "Everyone can do well in mathematics if they try." In general, the majority of students at each grade level rendered a response that was favorable to mathematics. However, the percentage offering a favorable response declined with grade level.

Liking mathematics and being willing to study more mathematics were both positively
associated with students' mathematics course taking. That is, favorable responses were more
frequent among eighth-grade students enrolled in algebra, twelfth-grade students enrolled in any
mathematics class, and twelfth-grade students who had completed more advanced coursework.
These associations with course taking were not, however, apparent in students' opinions on the
relationship between effort and mathematics achievement. In fact, eighth-grade students enrolled
in algebra were *less* likely than those enrolled in eighth-grade mathematics to agree that "everyone
can do well in mathematics if they try."

Performance of U.S. students in mathematics continues to improve. Since 1990, improved performance overall at all three grade levels and in each of the five content strands has been observed. When the achievement trends observed in 1996 were disaggregated by race and gender, improvement in performance continued to be observed for most groups. In addition, taking more, and more advanced, coursework in mathematics was associated with improved performance in all content strands.

Examination of student work revealed that certain types of questions were harder for some students than others. In particular, questions involving new concepts or requiring multistep solutions, written (or drawn) explanations of students' reasoning, problem solving, estimation, or the use of spatial skills were difficult for students. Straightforward questions that required simple (decontextualized) calculations were easier.

While examination of 1996 course-taking patterns revealed that more students appear to be taking more, and more advanced, mathematics courses than before, a look at classroom practices indicated that students still need more exposure to communicating effectively about mathematics. In particular, students need more practice writing about how to solve mathematical problems and discussing how to solve problems reflecting real-life situations. Activities of this sort invite students to engage more fully with the content of mathematics, can serve to increase students' ability to think analytically, and are necessary for improving performance on more difficult cognitive questions.

- Results for eighth-grade Asian/Pacific Islander students are not included in the body of this report. See Appendix A for details.
- Performance in Measurement and in Geometry and Spatial Sense was not analyzed with respect to whether students had taken a course in geometry because of the variability in mathematics course sequencing, the small percentage of students for whom the impact of geometry can be isolated, and the difficulty associated with identifying the effect of a particular curriculum on the performance of students in advanced mathematics. See discussion in Chapter 2.

Chapter 4 - Measurement

Chapter 5 - Geometry and Spatial Sense
2,909K

Chapter 6 - Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability 2,339K

**NCES 1999-453** **Ordering information**

**Suggested Citation**

U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National
Center for Education Statistics. *Student Work and Teacher Practices in Mathematics,*
NCES 1999-453, by J.H. Mitchell, E.F. Hawkins, P.M. Jakwerth, F.B. Stancavage, & J.A. Dossey.
Washington, DC: 1999.

Last updated 14 March 2001 (RH)