Try Telling These Kids The U.S. Is Bad at Math

Rolland Wu and George Silvis listen to a math problem at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Crystal City.
Rolland Wu and George Silvis listen to a math problem at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Crystal City. (James A. Parcell - Twp)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 13, 2006

It wasn't quite a Miss America pageant, but it had a gusto of its own. To the beat of rock music, more than 200 middle schoolers in T-shirts adorned with pi symbols or jokes about binary numbers jogged into a Crystal City hotel conference hall yesterday, waving and holding up signs identifying their home states.

The 57 teams -- from every state, plus the District, the U.S. territories and military or State Department schools around the world -- had spent the day vying for the MathCounts national championship, and they were about to find out which four-member team had won.

Maryland did well, capturing seventh place. Washington state commandeered second. A hush fell over the hall as 228 of the nation's most talented adolescent mathematicians strained to listen.

"The number one team, the national state champion," said Shan Carr Cooper, a vice president at Lockheed Martin, the event's sponsor, drawing out her words, "is the team from Virginia!"

Four Fairfax County middle school students -- Divya Garg, a seventh-grader at Frost; Brian Hamrick, an eighth-grader at Frost; Daniel Li, an eighth-grader at Carson; and Jimmy Clark, an eighth-grader at Longfellow -- rose from their seats.

Their medals came with $2,000 college scholarships, a trip to the U.S. Space Camp, and notebook computers for themselves and their coach, Longfellow math teacher Barbara Burnett.

The competition, in its 23rd year, is open to the top four students from each state and territory. The winning team was decided by a written test. An oral round determined the individual winner from among 12 finalists.

MathCounts and similar competitions are part of the strategies that educators are using to encourage U.S. students to do better in math. The National Center for Education Statistics says the average mathematics scores of U.S. students at ages 9 and 13 have risen in the past three decades, and the number of students who take math classes through high school has increased.

But the nation's math scores lag far behind those of many industrialized nations.

In a 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science study, U.S. fourth-graders scored below the average among the 40 wealthiest nations.

Scientists and business leaders have warned of a "gathering storm" of scientific lethargy and predicted that the country could falter in competition with other nations if the trend is not reversed.

"We've got a long way to go as a nation," said Jim Rubillo, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. But he lauded the improvement of U.S. students, crediting more emphasis on "real life" math problems.

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