math surveys

What do students really think of math? And does it matter?

Such insights may help improve national math gains, experts say.

When it comes to interest in math, 51 percent of students participating in a recent survey said they are naturally interested, while 25 percent cited a good teacher sparked their interest, and 11 percent said the prospect of a better college and career path is what motivates them.

The figures come from a survey sponsored by The Moody’s Foundation and unveiled by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. All students in the survey are participants in the Moody’s Mega Math (M3) Challenge, a national mathematics competition that involves high school juniors and seniors committing a 14-hour weekend day to using mathematical modeling to recommend solutions for real-world problems.

When grappling with a mathematics problem, almost one-third said they keep at it until they come up with an answer, with two-thirds reaching out to a teacher, the internet or a friend. When learning math, 64 percent of students said understanding the underlying concepts behind the formulas works best for them, while 23 percent cited practice at solving math problems to be most effective.

The Moody’s survey follows the December 2016 unveiling of results of an international math quiz by Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that showed U.S. high school students lag behind their global peers in math, ranking 40th in math out of 72 countries last year. The U.S. score was down 17 points from 2009 and 20 points below the average of others taking the quiz, which saw Singapore come out on top, followed by Japan, Estonia, Finland and Canada.

(Next page: How poor mathematics skills can determine college success)

According to the OECD report, only six percent of the 15-year-old U.S. students who took the international mathematics test had scores in the highest proficiency range, while 29 percent did not meet baseline proficiency.

Data compiled by Cengage reveals that just 25 percent of U.S. 12th-grade students are at or above proficient in math. Nearly 70 percent of community college students and nearly 40 percent of 4-year college students enroll without college-level reading and math skills.

Just 27 percent of students in a remedial math course will ever earn a bachelor’s degree, according to the data.

“The SIAM survey is an important step in identifying what makes those who are passionate about math succeed so that we can transfer that insight to American educators and parents, and enable students who struggle with STEM and other subjects to learn from it,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, a subsidiary of Moody’s Corporation.

“In today’s knowledge-based economy, it’s critical that we provide the next generation of Americans with the tools they need to ensure their skills are competitive and innovative,” Zandi said. “A good starting place is working to boost our country’s academic rankings, particularly in math and science, which research shows open doors to a rising number of job opportunities–from economics and computers to engineering and healthcare.”

Based on the results of the SIAM study, Zandi suggested that increased efforts be made to promote a natural interest in mathematics among American youth. “Investing in a national math competition that opens students’ eyes to the possibilities of using math to solve real-world issues is one effective way,” he said.

“Another important approach is for parents and educators to plant the seeds of interest in children at a young age,” he explained, pointing to numbers-related board games, puzzles such as Sudoku, brain teasers, online programs and gaming sites, and analyzing sports scores or retail discounting as a good place to start. “The message needs to be that math not only gets you places, but is used every day and can be a lot of fun too.”

Laura Ascione

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