The recently released national math test scores for 2009 are part of a growing body of lackluster results nationwide since the inception of the No Child Left Behind law. The exam, which has been deemed the “gold standard” of testing is hardly what one would call challenging with respect to math, and yet even so, the scores are barely indicative of a pulse.
With the prospect that all students may not achieve proficiency by 2014, finger pointing naturally ensues. Some will contend that we need to go to “authentic testing” that measures how well students use prior knowledge in new situations. This would take the form of open-ended, generally ill-posed problems that allow students to gain points just for attempting to guess an answer. With process trumping content, students would surely show gains, but in the end we still have to ask whether the intents of No Child Left Behind will have been realized. And the answer would most likely be a resounding “no,” though everyone would feel good about the test scores.
What is needed is not another test, but sound mathematics instruction that stresses content over process. The education establishment needs to understand that even process is based on skills and exercises, and a logical sequence of topics whose mastery builds upon itself. We need solid math curricula and textbooks that are based on the premise that procedural fluency leads to conceptual understanding. Problem solving does not exist independently of exercises. The belief that content-based math teaches only definitions and procedures needs to be abandoned.