Schools could improve students’ sluggish math scores by hammering home the basics, such as addition and multiplication, and then increasing the focus on fractions and geometry, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel recommended on March 13.

The panel’s highly anticipated report also said that math curricula should be streamlined and that teachers need better preparation–but it steered clear of more controversial topics such as whether the United States should adopt a national math curriculum or the best ways of teaching math.

“Difficulty with fractions (including decimals and percents) is pervasive and is a major obstacle to further progress in mathematics, including algebra,” the panel, appointed by President Bush two years ago, said in its final report.

Because success in algebra is linked to higher graduation rates and college enrollment, the panel focused on improving areas that form the foundation for algebra. Average U.S. math scores on a variety of tests drop around middle school, when algebra coursework typically begins. That trend led the panel to focus on what’s happening before kids take algebra.

A major goal for students should be mastery of fractions, because that is a “severely underdeveloped” area and one that’s important to later algebra success, the report states.

It goes on to say that other critical topics–such as whole numbers and aspects of geometry and measurement–should be studied in a more in-depth way.

When it comes to whole numbers, the report states that students must have a clear grasp of the meaning of basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, among other things.

With geometry and measurement, students should be able to find unknown lengths, angles, and areas, according to the report.

In general, U.S. math curricula ought to be streamlined, the panel declared.

“There is, I think, a tendency in American curricula to cover too many things too shallowly,” Larry Faulkner, the panel’s chair and the former president of the University of Texas, said in a briefing with reporters.