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Last in math: Alabama politicians look for ways to close gap

November 14, 2021 GMT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama students for years have ranked at the bottom in a national math assessment.

That has led one lawmaker to propose an overhaul in math instruction that would include more math coaches in schools, summer programs and interventions. Eventually, fifth grade students would need to show they were meeting certain math benchmarks to move to the sixth grade under the proposal, he said.

Republican Sen. Arthur Orr, who chairs the state education budget committee, is working on the proposal for the legislative session that begins in January. He said it would be a math counterpart to the Alabama Literacy Act, which puts a similar promotion requirement on third grade reading skills.

“When you are 50th in the country you have no choice but to improve,” Orr, R-Decatur, said. He said the persistent lagging scores shows the need for the state to put a heavy emphasis on math.

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The proposed promotion requirement is likely to be controversial since lawmakers pushed last year to delay the reading promotion test because of the pandemic. Orr emphasized the math promotion requirement for fifth graders wouldn’t kick in until the latter part of this decade and only after students had been in the revamped math program since first grade, he said.

Orr said he supports the retention component because students must have basic math skills — adding, subtraction, multiplication, division and fractions — to function well in life or to be ready to take on advanced math.

“You need to have a comfort level with those fundamentals,” he said.

Alabama’s math performance in fourth and eighth grades ranked dead last among states in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “The Nation’s Report Card.”

Education officials have expressed concern that the pandemic led to learning losses. Test scores from last spring, after the pandemic interrupted classrooms, showed just 24% of fourth graders and 14% of eighth graders were considered proficient in math. Students took a new assessment last year called the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program, complicating comparisons with prior years, but officials said the test results were concerning.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey told state Board of Education members this week that she is supportive of developing a math counterpart to the Alabama Literacy Act.

“In the weeks and months ahead, I look forward to working with you to place the same sense of urgency on mathematics as we have rightfully placed on reading,” Ivey said

Asked if the governor supports a requirement to hold back fifth graders who don’t meet math benchmarks, spokeswoman Gina Maiola said, “improving mathematics education in Alabama will require a comprehensive plan that is informed by all stakeholders.

The 2019 Alabama Literacy Act will require third graders to meet reading benchmarks to be promoted to the fourth grade. The promotion requirement is set to take effect this spring. However, Ivey said she will ask lawmakers to delay the promotion requirement for one year.

Orr said he is working with subject-matter experts on the proposal.

“It’s no secret the state is last in math,” said Mark Dixon, president of the A+ Education Partnership. “We need a statewide commitment to improving math achievement.”