Pr. William Pupils Still Grapple With Math Test

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008

New state test results show that Prince William County's third-graders are struggling to score at the highest level since the implementation of a controversial math program that was intended to boost performance.

The scores, which are the first state Standards of Learning (SOL) results to gauge the new program's effectiveness, reveal that fewer than half of Prince William's third-graders scored in the advanced category this year, the first that the Pearson math program "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space" was taught in that grade. Last year, third-graders who had not begun "Investigations" posted the same results.

The flat scores are a sizable decline since 2006, when 56 percent of third-graders reached the advanced level in math.

" 'Investigations' didn't cure the problem," said Vern Williams, a Fairfax County teacher and former member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel who was invited by the Prince William School Board to speak at its work session later this month.

This year's results mark the first time in three years that the percentage of Prince William third-graders who achieved an advanced score in math dipped below the state average. From last year to this year, the majority of Prince William's elementary schools experienced declines in the percentage of students reaching the advanced level.

"Investigations," which de-emphasizes traditional algorithms and focuses more on larger concepts and activities, is used in varying degrees in several Washington area school systems, including Arlington and Loudoun counties in Virginia and Frederick, Charles and St. Mary's counties in Maryland.

The program has emerged as a focal point in a debate about how to teach math and prepare students for algebra, college and an increasingly competitive global job market.

Many education experts and Washington area school officials hail "Investigations" and similar programs as effective ways to teach children how numbers work together and why solutions make sense. Lessons include how to break numbers into round or simpler numbers before computation and using inanimate objects to visualize and solve a basic equation.

Prince William, like many other school districts using the program, has recently begun supplementing "Investigations" with such traditional methods as flash cards and memorization to shore up students' fundamentals.

The program was developed by the nonprofit organization TERC, based in Massachusetts, and was introduced in the 1990s and later updated. Some parents and educators deride "Investigations," saying it does not focus enough on memorization and traditional math lessons. Many parents, meanwhile, find its methods unnecessarily convoluted.

Prince William school officials said that they would have preferred to see higher scores after implementing the program but that new initiatives can take a few years before achieving improvements. They also said it was an accomplishment that the overall percentage of proficient and advanced students stayed flat in the two year-period because new programs often result in sudden drops.

The Prince William School Board, concerned by a persistent corps of parents who want "Investigations" scrapped, is scheduled to meet Sept. 17 to discuss the new SOL and data from the Stanford Diagnostic Mathematics Test.

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