50% of students lack basic math / National test results show 6th-graders struggle with decimals, ratios (Japan)

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Nearly half of all sixth-grade primary school students do not understand multiplication and division with decimals, which is taught in the fifth grade or earlier, according to a study by the National Institute for Educational Policy Research (NIER).

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry’s institution has analyzed results of the national achievement test given every academic year from 2007 to 2010. The test targeted children in the sixth grade of primary school and those in the third year of middle school. Although the questions differed on each year’s test, experts were able to conduct this first comparative survey by reviewing answers on similar questions.

The most serious deficiency was found in the arithmetic ability of the sixth grade children. In one year’s test, only 45.3 percent of students gave the correct answer for a multiple choice question related to multiplying or dividing with decimals. Students were asked to choose which formula or formulas out of four choices would yield a smaller number than the original figure.

The percentage of children who correctly answered similar questions in other years’ tests was also low. The highest percentage among the four years was only 55.7 percent.

Simple questions regarding decimals, such as asking the product of “5 x 1.2,” tended to show a higher percentage of correct answers, the institution said.

NIER said it is necessary to review the current teaching method because it seems children do not fully understand decimal multiplication and division, which they should have learned in earlier grades.

The institute also believes previous analyses of national test results have not been effectively used for reviewing teaching methodology in schools. Therefore it plans to hold an explanatory meeting for teachers in supervisory positions at schools across the nation.

Kenji Miyauchi, the head of the institution’s Department for Curriculum Development, expressed concern, saying, “Teachers can teach children how to calculate, but they may not succeed in making them understand the most important thing–why they came up with an answer.” Regarding the issue with decimals found in the study, he said: “If they don’t understand decimals, they may have trouble interpreting statistics or charts. This could have a negative impact on their lives.”

Sixth-grade students also had trouble with ratio questions, with low percentages of correct answers given for such problems. Only 55.1 percent to 57.8 percent of students answered correctly for basic ratio questions, such as “What percentage of children are girls when there are 80 girls among 200 children?”

When the answer choices contained figures with decimals instead of percentages, even fewer students got the question right.

This suggests students have difficulty understanding the relationship between two numbers, which may lead to a lack of understanding of proportions and inverse proportion, at a later stage.

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Difficulty in writing logically

Furthermore, test results show sixth-grade children are weak at writing logically and developing a message. A review seems necessary of the teaching methods used in early school years.

For questions in which students had to express their opinions after reading a passage with a chart, a majority of students gave adequate answers in only one of the four years of the study.

One question on the 2009 test asked children to write their observations in 100 Japanese characters after reading a passage comparing the national averages for the running times of sixth-grade children in a 50-meter sprint with the times of one school. Only 17.8 percent of children gave acceptable answers to the question. In many cases, children could not process or interpret the information given in the passage.

Among third-year students at middle schools, 43.4 to 54.3 percent sufficiently expressed their opinions on similar questions, giving reasons to support them.

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Utilize test results to improve

The education ministry determined the weak areas of students after each national test and distributed the analyses to schools so they could be used to improve teaching methods.

However, NIER believes the results have not been effectively used for adjusting teaching methodology, as the annual analyses did not seem to resolve any of the problems detected in this comparative survey. Therefore it plans to make a booklet with detailed analysis reports and hold a meeting for officials of prefectural and municipal boards of education across the nation to explain the nation’s present academic conditions.

(Sep. 21, 2012)