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Houston, We Have a Math Problem – Inclusion of Data Science Could Be Part of The Cure

Math and reading scores post-COVID from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are in—and as we expected the news isn’t good. National math scores recorded the largest decline since testing began in 1990. We all knew that the COVID-19 pandemic had negatively impacted education. However, the rate of decline—across student populations, states, and socioeconomic sectors—is troubling. But rather than view this moment as only a cause for alarm, we should embrace it as a call to upgrade the U.S.’s math standards.

Currently, most schools follow what is known as the “geometry sandwich.” That is, Algebra 1 and 2 and Geometry—a sequence that dates back to the 1800s and only loosely mirrors the type of mathematics modern STEM professionals use in their work. Missing is an emphasis on data science, even though data and data skills form the base of 21st century life. Knowing what to do with the large amount of data we make everyday is how today’s scientists use sophisticated digital tools to edit algorithms and employ machine-learning techniques to suggest binge-worthy shows on Netflix, or offer other products you might like while shopping online.

Beyond Netflix, everyone needs to have, at the very least, a basic understanding of data and data science. From patient database management in healthcare to servicing electronic and autonomous vehicles, many vocations have become data-driven enterprises. That doesn’t even include the multiple ways data plays a role in our daily lives. Data is present in traditional media, and social media, as well the day-to-day decisions we all make around personal finance, real estate, health care and even entertainment choices – ever try to compete in a fantasy football league without using data to set your lineup?.

And yet, despite these society-wide adoptions of data and data science, mathematical elements related to digital data, analysis, and interpretation are still not incorporated into most state-level math standards. This exclusion is made evident by the latest NAEP scores. For instance, eighth-grade performance in data analysis, statistics, and probability declined by 10 points, which most experts believe is the equivalent of a full grade level. This data skills decline has been missed in mainstream coverage. With dwindling national math scores, and the United States lagging far behind its global peers, this is the perfect moment to fundamentally reconsider what we count as success in the digital age.

Yes, students still need to know how to add, subtract, divide and maybe even integrate. However, the U.S. also needs to emphasize the right concepts and knowledge that form the center of modern life. This could be a watershed moment if educational organizations and institutions choose to accept it. We must revitalize math standards, and give students the best chance to succeed in the modern era.

There was some progress towards this goal before the pandemic, with many educators and organizations working together to address the challenges facing several subject curricula, including strategies for mathematical modeling, data science, and artificial intelligence for K-12 learning. Resources for teachers are being created to help make this easier, and the National Science Foundation recently gave a $2.5 million grant to researchers who want to transform how data science is included in teacher preparation. Also, the National Academies of Sciences has convened researchers to discuss the topic. However, we can do more to bring data science to more students, in more districts.

One way to accomplish this is to embrace technology. The pandemic forced districts to quickly adopt a sweeping infusion of technology into their instruction, which may be for the best. Modernizing classrooms with technology can help students better connect subjects like math to their digital lives.

Another step is to modernize the assessments that report the scores in the first place. While the National Assessment of Educational Progress (often called the “Nation’s Report Card”) has a section on data analysis, it over-emphasizes descriptive things like mean, median, and mode. Modern techniques related to data analysis, computational thinking, and modeling in mathematical contexts are either inauthentic or completely missing on the current test—as is any currently relevant data technology. When the 12th grade scores are released in 2024, they will also miss this critical content. What data should you look at and when? What methods can you use and how? The test doesn’t cover those basics.

The reality, as these recent test scores prove, is that our students have been crushed by the pandemic. The answer, however, is not to keep doing the same thing we’ve always done and hope for a different outcome. Instead we should use the moment to inject new life into an outdated mathematical framework. The data and data science elements that already consume so much of our daily lives are an excellent place to start.

–Ulrich Boser

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