Student achievement gap dominates debate over math

Bill Cobey
Bill Cobey Robert Willett

Math test scores for African-American boys slid dramatically after 2012, after the state changed the way the subject is taught. Concern over the achievement gap between minority and white students nearly helped doom revised math guidelines the State Board of Education considered this week.

The new guidelines for students in kindergarten through eighth grade squeaked to approval in a 6-4 vote Thursday after a lengthy discussion about the achievement gap and whether students and teachers in low-wealth districts are getting enough help with new ways to teach and learn the subject. Teachers will begin using the retooled math guidelines in 2018.

The math standards were designed to emphasize critical thinking over memorization, but some parents and teachers say the changes are confusing and frustrating for them and for children.

“I applaud the idea of critical thinking,” board vice-chairman A.L. Collins said. “It’s not going to help the students most disadvantaged. Something is seriously wrong with the way we’re teaching disadvantaged students.”

Freddie Williamson, Hoke County school superintendent and an adviser to the board, said disadvantaged students don’t want watered-down standards, but schools need to find more ways to teach them.

“You can’t teach everyone the same way,” he said.

Scores on state standardized tests dropped for all students after 2012, when the state started using Common Core standards.

The differences on state math test results between white students and black students and between economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged students widened significantly from 2012 to 2013, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction, and since then has remained relatively constant. The scores show:

▪ In 2012, 89.7 percent of white students in third through eighth grade were proficient in math, while 70 percent of black students were proficient in the subject, a gap of 19.7 percentage points. In 2016, the gap was 31.8 points, with white student proficiency at 58.9 percent and black student proficiency at 27.1 percent.

▪ The gap was 17.5 points in 2012 and 29.7 points in 2016 between low-income students and their wealthier peers. The gap between economically disadvantaged students and others has narrowed a bit since 2014, when it was 33.1 points.

Beyond lower test scores, the math guidelines are unpopular with some parents and teachers.

Board member Olivia Oxendine said math has become “too remote” for them. Parents cannot help their children with homework, she said. Teachers who don’t have a curriculum or materials that follow the new guidelines end up relying on Google searches for ideas.

State education administrators said the Department of Public Instruction is paying more attention than it did six years ago to the guidelines’ roll-out in school districts, and are ready to offer teachers more help.

Separately, the board voted to put renewed attention on closing the achievement gap.

“It’s my No. 1 priority as a board member,” said Chairman Bill Cobey.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner