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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Math problems puzzle officials

High school math scores aren’t adding up, and no one can explain why.

Only one-third of high juniors could demonstrate proficiency on the math portion of the New England Common Assessment Program, according to figures released by the state Thursday. That’s up only slightly from 32 percent last year and 28 percent the year before that.

Tim Kurtz, director of assessment for the state Department of Education, said officials from New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island – which all use the same NECAP test – have gone over the questions to see if they were too hard. The answer was no.

“The feeling across the board was the results simply don’t make sense to us if the kids are actually trying hard,” Kurtz said. “The questions, from our point of view, are well aligned with grade level expectation.”

Kurtz said reviews of the tests have shown that the questions with which students are having the most trouble are ones for which they have to write out a response, as opposed to multiple choice.

“The rate of blanks and zeros in the constructed responses is baffling to us,” he said.

Low math scores among Nashua public high school students continues to be an area of concern for administrators.

“We know that’s where we really need to focus our attention,” Nashua High School North Principal David Ryan said.

According to results released Thursday, 31 percent of students at North demonstrated proficiency on the math section of the New England Common Assessment Program. That’s up slightly from last year’s score of 30 percent.

At Nashua High School South, only 24 percent demonstrated proficiency, down from 31 percent last year.

Ryan said it’s too early to come up with a single reason for why the math scores have been poor, but he said he and the superintendent have talked about addressing the issue of what’s going on with the math program.

“For two years, our focus has been literacy,” Ryan said. “You can tell where the focus has been across the board. Now, we’re going to be looking at how we can improve math.”

Students graduating without a basic understanding of math has been an issue for colleges, where more remedial courses are necessary for incoming high school graduates. Nashua has made an effort to address this by creating a new course called “college ready math,” which would give seniors a chance to brush up on math before graduating.

Kurtz said one of the theories has been high school students aren’t taking the test seriously. If that were the case, then it’s hard to explain why 73 percent of those same students were able to demonstrate proficiency in reading.

The idea has been floated to make passing the test mandatory to graduate, but Kurtz said that would be a knee-jerk reaction.

“A graduation test is a major education policy that deserves debate,” he said. “Whether kids are taking this test seriously is a separate issue.”

North junior Sathvika Reddy, the student member of the Board of Education, took the NECAP earlier this year, as did all juniors, and said the math section was the hardest part.

“Math is one of those areas where everyone is at a completely different level,” said Reddy, who is taking Advanced Placement calculus this year.

She thinks students are taking the test seriously. Most students thought their scores would be on their transcripts, she said. However, Brian Cochrane, the district’s director of accountability and assessment, said Friday that isn’t the case.

“The NECAP scores are part of a students’ permanent record, but they do not go on college transcripts,” he said.

Cochrane said there have been other changes to address math, such as creating a year-long algebra 1 course for extension and foundation students, as opposed to a one-semester course. Cochrane said the hope is that will lessen the chance for some students to go an entire year without taking a math course, which was possible before.

“We know that math is a work in progress and we know it’s not just a high school thing,” he said. “The hope is to take what we’ve learned about using data about creating benchmarks in literacy and apply that to mathematics.”

Test scores for individual schools and districts, as well as sample math questions from the NECAP, can be found at the state Department of Education Web site,

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or