First Graders Who Lack Math Skills Still Lag As Adults
February 28, 2013

Kids Who Lack Basic Math Skills Still Lag Behind As Adults

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A new study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reveals that by seventh grade, students who failed to acquire basic math skills in the first grade scored far behind their peers when taking a test on basic mathematical abilities that are required for daily adult life.

The relevant basic math skill is known as ℠number system knowledge,´ which is defined as the ability to relate a quantity to the numerical symbol that represents it as well as to manipulate quantities and make calculations. Number system knowledge is the basis for all other mathematical abilities. This is especially true for those skills that are needed to function as an adult member of society — a concept known as numeracy.

Early efforts at helping children overcome difficulties in the acquisition of number system knowledge could have significant long-term benefits, according to the research team. More than 20 percent of adults in the US do not have the minimum eighth-grade math skills necessary to function successfully in the workplace.

"An early grasp of quantities and numbers appears to be the foundation on which we build more complex understandings of numbers and calculations," said Kathy Mann Koepke, PhD, director of the Mathematics and Science Cognition and Learning: Development and Disorders Program at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). NICHD is the NIH institute that sponsored the research.

"Given the national priority on education in science, technology, engineering and math fields, it is crucial for us to understand how children become adept at math and what interventions can help those who struggle to build these skills," Koepke continued.

The findings of this study appear online in the journal PLOS ONE and are part of a long-term study of children in the Columbia, Missouri school system. The team consisted of researchers from the University of Missouri, Columbia University and Carnegie Mellon University.

The number system knowledge of first graders from 12 elementary schools was tested first.  Number system knowledge consists of several core principles, including:

  • Numbers represent different magnitudes (five is bigger than four).
  • Number relationships stay the same, even though numbers may vary (the difference between 1 and 2 is the same as the difference between 30 and 31).
  • Quantities (for example, three stars) can be represented by symbolic figures (the numeral 3).
  • Numbers can be broken into component parts (5 is made up of 2 and 3, or 1 and 4).

The students were also tested for such cognitive skills as memory, attention span and general intelligence.

By seventh grade, the scientists found that children who had the lowest scores on the initial assessment in first grade lagged behind their peers. However, the differences in numeracy ability between the two groups were not related to general intelligence, language skills or the computational methods used by the students.

At the age of 13, 180 students took timed assessments that included such skills as multiple-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems, word problems and comparisons, and computations with fractions.“¯These types of tests evaluate functional numeracy — those skills that adults need to participate successfully in the workplace. Functional numeracy might include the need to have a limited understanding of algebra in order to make change.  For example: "If an item costs $1.40 and you give the clerk $2, how many quarters and how many dimes should you get back?" Functional numeracy might also include the ability to manipulate fractions — a skill that is useful, for instance, in doubling the ingredients in a recipe, finding the center of a wall for hanging a shelf or a painting.

Analysis of the students' scores revealed that a low score on the assessment of number system knowledge in first grade was an accurate predictor of a low functional numeracy score as a teenager.

The team found that first graders with the lowest scores also had the slowest growth in number system knowledge acquisition throughout that entire school year. They concluded that starting life early with poor number knowledge can put children so far behind that they have no hope of catching up.

"These findings are especially valuable for bringing attention to the idea that numeracy early in life has profound effects not only for the individual, but also for the society that individual works and lives in," Dr. Koepke concluded.