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Florida students failing miserably at math

When it comes to math, most Florida eighth-graders can barely perform the basic tasks educators say they should have learned in the fifth grade. A national test and survey administered last year also shows that most Florida children spend fewer than 30 minutes a day on math homework but more than four hours a day watching television.

The test, given to children in 40 states and territories, is part of what is commonly known as the Nation's Report Card. Although the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the formal name of the test, has been measuring children's performance for more than two decades, this is the first time a state-by-state comparison was issued. Congress authorized the test, which is voluntary for states, in 1989.

Florida's results are bleak _ only four states performed worse. But no state performed particularly well.

Even in North Dakota, the state whose eighth-grade students performed the best, just 24 percent were working at a seventh-grade level or better. They scored at least 300 out of 500, demonstrating proficiency with fractions, decimals, percents, elementary geometry and simple algebra. According to the National Center for Education Statistics' report on the test, those skills are generally covered in the seventh grade.

In Florida, where 2,534 eighth-graders in 101 public schools were tested, only 10 percent reached that level. Fifty-four percent scored at least 250, considered roughly equal to a fifth-grade skill level, and 96 percent scored at least 200, showing they could perform the basic skills they should have learned in third grade.

The average score in Florida was 255, and the national average was 261. Nineteen states scored higher than Florida, 16 made similar marks and four _ Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands _ posted significantly worse scores.

"This is an alarm bell that ought to ring all night throughout this country," U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander said of the test results.

"If our aim is to be first in the world in math and science by the year 2000, there is an enormous challenge ahead of us," he said, referring to the goal set by President Bush and the nation's governors.

Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor said the poor test results were no surprise; they confirm reports she has been receiving for years.

"Our students are pretty good at basic math, but not at reasoning and problem solving," she said.

"Part of this is a reaction to the last decade, where everybody wanted to do minimum skills testing," Castor said. The minimum skills test, which Florida recently abolished, encouraged teachers to emphasize basic skills at the expense of more sophisticated work, the commissioner said.

"And we have real problems of perception," she said.

First, parents and teachers tend not to encourage girls to work on their math, Castor said. What's more, according to the study, parents who didn't care for math in school tend not to push their children to do better.

Many people don't understand how poorly their children perform in math, Castor said.

"There's this idea that "The nation has a problem, but I don't have a problem here in my back yard,' " she said.

Among the test's findings:

Florida's Asian students did the best on the test, scoring an average of 273. White students scored an average of 265, Hispanics 246 and blacks 231.

Florida girls scored slightly lower than boys, posting an average of 253 compared with the boys' 257.

Students from affluent urban areas performed the best (271), those from poor urban areas did the worst (240) and rural students ranked between them (249).

Parents' education levels predicted student performance, with the children of college graduates doing the best (267) and children of high school dropouts doing worst (236).

One-fourth of the students said they spent at least 45 minutes a day on math homework, while teachers estimated that only 16 percent of their students spent that much time on math. But almost half watch at least four hours of television each day.

Students whose families had several types of reading materials _ books, encyclopedias, newspapers and magazines _ scored an average of 266 on the test, compared with 241 for students with just two types of materials.

Although educators say that working out math problems in small groups is the best way to improve student performance, 51 percent of students said they never work in small groups.

Fewer than one-third of the math teachers surveyed majored in math in college. Most majored in education.

Levels of performance

National average 261

Virgin Islands 218 (4th grade)

D.C. 231 (4th grade)

Florida 255 (5th grade)

Minnesota 276 (6th grade)

Iowa 278 (6th grade)

Montana 280 (6th grade)

North Dakota 281 (6th grade)

Sources: Florida Department of Education

The answers

No. 1 A. The box with the tennis ball

No. 2 B. 24 divided by 6

No. 3 C.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.