SD Schools Scoring Better on English than on Math

The Department of Education provides this awesome chart plotting the English and math proficiency rates of every school—not just school district, but school building—that had students take the statewide “Smarter Balanced” standardized tests. The size of each dot represents the number of students tested.

The scores clearly cluster along a diagonal showing that good scores on the English test correlate with good scores on the math test. However, run a diagonal from (0,0) to (100,100) and you’ll see that most of the dots fall up and left from that diagonal. That shows that students are generally scoring better on the English test than on the math test.

Aberdeen Central High School provides one seemingly drastic example: 72% of Central’s juniors in 2015–2016 scored proficient in English but only 33% scored proficient in math. (Juniors! SOHCAHTOA!) Supreintendent Becky Guffin explains away that gap as lag time in teaching catching up with the tests:

Guffin said the low scores are because it takes longer for the new standards to catch up with older students. Younger kids have been using the standards adopted in 2010 their whole school careers, while older students lived through the switch of standards.

“The high school has the most difficult time catching up with that,” Guffin said. “There may be more gaps with that because of the instruction they received previously because the standards were different at that particular grade level” [Katherine Grandstrand, “School Districts—Not Just Students—Get Report Cards,” Aberdeen American News, 2017.06.10].

You can mouse over the outliers in that upper-left area and find more high schools and middle schools than elementary schools, with noteworthy exceptions like Todd County’s Klein Elementary (English proficiency 75%, math 17%) and the Montrose Colony Elementary (English 55%, math 9%).

Interestingly, the lower rates of high school student proficiency in passing tests based on standards toward which their learning was not geared in their elementary days appears not to correlate into a lack of college readiness:

According to this chart, based on scores on the ACT an Accuplacer tests, the distribution of schools in percentage of students ready for college skews notably higher on both English and math than proficiency on the state tests. Aberdeen Central’s college readiness rates in 2015–2016 were 79% in English and 66% in math. That’s still a fifth of test takers not ready for college English and a third not ready for college math.


34 Responses to SD Schools Scoring Better on English than on Math

  1. Porter Lansing

    Verbal ability — reading, writing and speaking — arises from across much of our brain, requiring key elements to harmonize. Math skills however are centralized primarily only in the hippocampus.
    Those born with a less genetically advanced hippocampus have difficulty with math but having a certain portion of the brain with lesser genetic advancment doesn’t hinder the brain from incorporating the remainder to develop English skills.
    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/study-math-easier-kids-others/

  2. Roger Elgersma

    So who is the school in the upper right hand corner. Congrats.
    Those taking the ACT should all be ready for college unless a few just took it for a joke. If they tried in high school, drop outs did not, they should be able to do this. unless we have to many who are programmed that college is success and no college is not, bad wrong attitude, we are seriously failing those who aspire to succeed.

  3. Some of the colony schools seem to be lagging a bit.

  4. Roger, that top-right dot is the Sioux Falls Challenge Center (98% English, 96% math), which offers “an accelerated/advanced curriculum for gifted students grades two through five..”

  5. Mr. Elgersma, if you put your pointer over the circle it tells you what school it is, unless maybe you are on one of those fancy phones without a pointer and with tiny little screens. I like bigger screens so I can read things.

  6. Porter Lansing

    “I like big screens and I cannot lie.”

  7. Ms. DiSanto fits your remark well, Mr. Lansing.

  8. Interesting. Yet, there is no ‘explaining away’. The Master of the Jedi Knights taught, “Do or do not; there is no try”, Yoda.

    The useful graphic would plot the schools’ performance vs the first world education achievements by their contemporaries from Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Netherlands, etc.

  9. Donald Pay

    This is not surprising. It has been this way since the 1980s, and probably before. I don’t think it is related to a particular test, because it’s been a decades long discrepancy. It is related to what schools decide to prioritize in which grades. Literacy has been the priority since the 1980s, especially in SD, so state schools had much more emphasis on improving reading instruction and assisting students who need extra help to learn to read. Despite all the emphasis on STEM, the state hasn’t emphasized math skills as much. Curriculum and teacher’s ability in lower grades to accelerate math operations and concepts have lagged behind literacy instruction.

  10. This is why, Mr. Pay, we should have dug The Borehole when we had the chance. All the fluffy language skills are a waste. Repeal the foreign language requirement and slam a few more science courses down these kids maws, I say.

  11. You can’t compare the results of a math test to an english test. That is no different than comparing the life span of a snail to an elephant. They are two different things.

    Well, I guess you can. You can actually compare anything to another thing if you want. It doesn’t make any sense but you can still do it. . . Do what you want.

    Why didn’t you just compare South Dakota math scores against other states and do the same with english?

  12. Darin Larson

    Donald Pay explains the situation very well and it aligns with what I have witnessed. I would add my own anecdotal experience helping my kids with homework to the discussion: The math curriculum is a little more challenging than the English curriculum.

  13. Actually, OldSarg, I think we can make comparisons. We have two core subjects that we think are worth testing the crap out of. We have developed standards of proficiency in each subject, levels of knowledge we expect every child to reach. Far more children are reaching those standards in English than in math. Why is that, and what does it mean about how we should allocate teaching time and resources?

  14. Yes Cory you can compare anything to anything but there is no correlation between the two.

    Beyond that Smarter Balance testing is neither; smarter nor balanced. Most South Dakota schools waste valuable time with the students just to prepare them for the math portion where they don’t do the same for the english. In addition, as for the test, each state sets its own standards for proficiency so you can’t even compare one state to another. When the “contest” between which test each state would use started Smarter Balanced was by far the leader. After the test was implemented the majority of states dropped Smarter Balanced. Now I don’t think more than 6 even use it.

    But back to the subject at hand: Fewer people in northern South Dakota are arrested for DUI than southern South Dakota. What would you recommend we do about that?

  15. Porter Lansing

    @OldSarge … Uhhhhhh? Make the test in NoSoDak harder to pass?

  16. Robert McTaggart

    STEM employers want graduates who can creatively solve technical problems, but they also have to interact with customers and other employees, and write or speak well about their work.

    But it seems at the moment that there is more Math avoidance. We probably could encourage a higher percentage of women to consider going into the sciences, engineering, and math/statistics too.

  17. OldSarg, I don’t get why you’re so resistant to looking at the data and drawing reasonable conclusions.

    If I look at my cupboard and see I have more apples than oranges, I don’t say, “Oh, darn, can’t compare apples and oranges.” I go to Kessler’s and buy more oranges.

    If I look at my French students’ tests and see that they are acing the vocab but struggling with the grammar questions, I spend more time reviewing grammar.

    If I look at the state tests and find more kids proficient in English than in math, I might spend more time teaching math. I might give the schools more money so they can hire more math teachers and reduce class sizes (although reducing class size is one of the least effective policy options for improving student performance). I might write a better math test that more accurately captures what teachers and students are doing in the classroom. Or I might just cancel all state-mandated standardized tests and instead use as indicators of success assessments by teachers, graduation rates, and rates of graduates having to take remedial classes at university…

    …and son of a gun, the latter indicator shows a similar trend: 17.4% of South Dakota freshmen at our Regental campuses have to take remedial English, while 26.5% of them have to take remedial math.

    I agree with Robert that there is more math avoidance than English avoidance. We hear people commiserate and laugh all the time, “I don’t get math. That’s o.k., me neither!” We don’t hear similar talk, not as extensively, about talking, reading, and writing (although I will say that I am hearing a scary increase in kids who will say to me, “I don’t read,” as if failing to perform a basic learning activity is something to laugh at or be proud of).

    Maybe English is easier to sneak past the anti-intellectualism that has infected our country. You can get people to read paragraphs and write sentences without making them feel like they are acting smart. But break out numbers and variables and graphs and calculators, and they immediately recognize they are acting like nerds and (gasp!) scientists. We may need policy changes, but we definitely need culture changes that make doing arithmetic and algebra and calculus as normal as writing a short essay.

  18. Porter Lansing

    Kids say, “I don’t read.”? I suppose that means, “I don’t read for fun.” That’s an extremist Republican’s kid, I’ll bet. Aside from the sheer joy of exercising the imagination, research shows reading for pleasure improves literacy, social skills, health and learning outcomes.
    It gives people access to culture and heritage and empowers them to become active citizens, who can contribute to economic and social development. Kids who are surrounded by adults with an aversion to change and an,”I can do it myself without the help of the group.” mindset might believe and have it affirmed that, “Reading as just a liberal propaganda tool.

  19. Porter Lansing

    “Reading IS just a liberal propaganda tool.” #RedCircleForPoorProofReading :0)

  20. Don Coyote

    @cah: “We hear people commiserate and laugh all the time, “I don’t get math. That’s o.k., me neither!””

    Many brains do have trouble processing numbers. Upwards to 8% of the population suffer from dyscalculia (a difficulty in understanding and manipulating numbers) on par with estimates for dyslexia. Then there are the countless people who suffer from a lesser developed intraparietal sulcus (IPS) in the parietal lobe of the brain where math is proccessed. Educators have developed teaching methods for dealing with dyslexia but teaching the math impaired remains the red headed stepchild in education.

    http://www.mercurynews.com/2011/10/03/dont-get-math-researchers-home-in-on-the-brains-problem-2/

  21. Porter Lansing

    @Don … Stem cells may soon be used to fortify a lesser developed hippocampus (below the parietal lobe).

  22. While I would love it if SD schools spent more time on math, have to agree with oldsarg.

    The simplest answer is that the language test is easier than the math test. To compare them in the way you do here requires that the threshold for proficiency is equal, which, despite the best efforts of test administrators, is dubious.

    And the simplest answer as to why many “aren’t math people”: they didn’t try hard enough. The perpetuation of the myth that many people (>8%) aren’t math people is part of the cultural problem contributing to poor math proficiency.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/the-myth-of-im-bad-at-math/280914/

  23. I practice Jim’s edict in the classroom: tell me you’re not a math person, and I’ll tell you everyone can be a math person. Excuses like Coyote offers (math is harder, the brain isn’t designed for it, blah blah blah) just get in the way of the learning everyone can do.

    Jim’s comment also fits with what I said above: one perfectly logical conclusion we can draw from comparing the English and math scores is that this English test is easier. But we’d never realize that if we didn’t compare the scores. So I still don’t get what useful point OldSarg is trying to make about not being able to compare the scores. His claim, which feels like an argument made for the sake of argument, is as useless as this ugly millennial criticism of “judging.” Horsehockey. Compare. Judge. Look at data and facts and draw conclusions.

  24. Cory, my point is simply that you can’t honestly make a comparison between an english test and a math test. They are two different animals. Jim has a good point about “math people”. That is an issue but when considering Smarter Balance testing that is not the issue. While we read every day in almost every activity you don’t do higher level math on a daily basis. Try to remember the quadratic equation. Try to remember what a noun is now. Of course you can remember the definition of what a noun is but how often in your daily life do you use the quadratic equation. Beyond that the Smarter Balanced test is a progressive test. You start with simple questions and if you answer those wrong it keeps you on simple equations while if you answer correctly it progresses further to to the point to where you can no longer answer the questions. If you happened to have reached the level of “proficient” congratulations. The english section, on the other hand, is based upon “comprehension”. They are two different animals. My intent is not to simple argue but to point out the english and math results cannot be compared to each other. But then again, go ahead and compare them. It’s your world.

  25. Cory, I used to think pouring money into the public school system was the way to higher test scores and breaking the achievement gap, but that has not happened in MN. Education funding under Dayton increased a lot but barely moved the minority achievement gap and in some areas it didn’t increase at all (I can show you the info). This has frustrated education advocates here and no one quite knows what to take of of the findings, and everyone comes away scratching their heads on what to do.
    I’ll always support proper education funding but it all needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
    Perhaps we just need to come to the realization that some people are just smarter than others, just like some people are more athletic and musically gifted than others.

  26. Don Coyote

    @cah:”Excuses like Coyote offers (math is harder, the brain isn’t designed for it, blah blah blah) just get in the way of the learning everyone can do.”

    Your reading comprehension sucks Heidelberger. Nowhere did I state math is harder or that the brain isn’t designed for it. To review, I only stated that many brains have trouble processing math/numbers because of a learning disability called dyscalculia not unlike dyslexia where brains have trouble with reading and language skills. Your contention that everyone can be a “math person” is risible and an insult to those who deal daily with a learning disability. Shame on you.

  27. No, OldSarg, it’s not “my world.” I don’t believe in relativism. I believe in objective truth. The scores on the two tests are objective facts. We can look at the two tests, observe, “Gee, more kids get high scores on one test than the other,” and wonder what that observable fact means.

    Dr. Art Marmorstein as an essay in today’s Aberdeen paper contending the tests are bad:

    When ESSA put an end to No Child Left Behind mandates and states no longer needed the federal waivers connected to the adoption of the Common Core and the associated PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests, states around the country were quick to seek better alternatives. While a few years ago, 46 states used one or the other of the new tests, participation in now down to 20 states — and dropping fast.

    While we’re committing ourselves to education magic in South Dakota, we’d do well to start with a trick we really can do: making a badly designed test disappear [Art Marmorstein, “Improving Education as if by Magic,” Aberdeen American News, 2017.06.14].

    Coyote, my apologies if I have misinterpreted the intent of your statement, but my statement to students stands. Every person can be a math person. Students find ways to overcome both dyslexia and dyscalculia. But culturally, we enable innumeracy (and even denigrate math wizardry) far more than we enable illiteracy.

  28. Porter Lansing

    In a day to day context … I DO have a machine in my pocket that can do algebraic equations quite accurately but that machine won’t mitigate a potential employers opinion of me if I talk like a hillbilly.

  29. Porter Lansing

    From the, “I’m a Libra and I must see both sides of an issue to avoid anxiety, file.” 😁
    “New research shows that math anxiety is by no means an American problem, and is found in countries where students regularly outperform us in math skills.” – NYTimes – So does being “bad at math,” whatever that is, make you anxious, or does being anxious make you bad at math? Try the Bedtime Math app. and give your kids a fair chance …
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/well/family/fending-off-math-anxiety.html?emc=edit_nn_20170615&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=72790262&te=1&_r=0

  30. I have to disagree with Cory on this one. Not everyone is a math person and he sounds like that parent which insists that his kid is the smartest in the classroom even though he can barely read or write a sentence and struggles with math.
    This is all the more reason to support vo-tech schools, as I believe most everyone can learn a trade.

  31. Jenny, let me clarify my expectations. By “be a math person,” I don’t mean become a math major and do statistics and spreadsheets and calculus all day. I mean, overcome those struggles, understand and finish math homework, and pass high school math. I say the same when teaching English and exhorting every student to “be an English person: “Very few of you kids will grow up to write novels, but every one of you can read this novel and talk and write intelligently about it… so let’s get to work!”

  32. Porter Lansing

    Those are proper expectations, Cory. There are different paths to passing the math credits, in high school. I have a close relative who has his Doctorate in Statistics and uses it in the legal field to make big piles of money. He tutors his friend’s kids in algebra; arguably the hardest concept for many of us. He believes that some people just have a very hard time with conceptual algebra but can always get at least a passing grade with a lot of hard work. I had to take remedial Algebra in Vermillion and no kidding that class took 90% of my homework time, every night. Passed with a D minus, but I passed. (Here’s a method … If you go to the Professor for every bit as much extra instruction as you’re offered and make the Professor truly believe you want to learn the material, she or he will almost always pass you. In college, the Professors really want you to pass, where in High School the teachers are more involved in making sure you learn and retain the material or you’ll do it again.)

  33. Cory, so you you quote an article that proves my point to show that I am wrong? Ok. . .

  34. OldSarg, I’m not sure we’re arguing about the same things. I don’t mind chucking the tests. That the tests are bad is a perfectly plausible conclusion from the results. The part of your statement I’m disputing is the initial snail/elephant claim that we can’t look at results from SD English tests and SD math tests side by side and make some valid logical conclusions.