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SAN FRANCISCO – U.S. students’ poor showing in international rankings of math proficiency signal a growing barrier to upward mobility for the nation’s low-income and minority students. Some go so far as to call math the new literacy tests of our generation.

Advocates of the new Common Core State Standards, however, argue their adoption could help close that gap and bring some equity to the math landscape.

Professor Judit Moschkovich teaches math education at the University of California Santa Cruz. She says the new standards will help change the way math is taught in classrooms around the country, making instruction both more relevant to students and aligning it with how math is taught in countries outside the United States.

“What you test is what you get,” says Moschkovich, pointing to the assessments designed for the CCSS. “Assessments lead curricular reform,” she explains. “By changing the assessments, you change the curriculum … and teachers are grounded in curriculum.”

Moschkovich notes that America’s longstanding problem with math is tied in large part to a longstanding pedagogical attitude here that attaches little importance to preparing math instructors.

“I have people who apply to the secondary [teaching] credential who have never had a math class in college,” says Moschkovich. “Something is wrong in terms of the perception that you can teach high school math if you took high school math. This started way before the Common Core.”

The new standards, she explains, attempt to strike a balance between teaching computational skills, on the one hand, with a conceptual understanding of the mechanics at work. “This is what other countries have been doing and is partly why they do better on international comparisons.”

According to the latest PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) study, released by the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), U.S. students ranked 23rd out of 26 developed economies in math proficiency. The survey, conducted every three years, looks at math and literacy skills in 64 countries.

In the United States, low income and minority students – many of them African American and Latino – have traditionally fared the worst when it comes to math, putting them on the lowest rung in an area deemed crucial to academic advancement and access to higher paying jobs.

According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 11 percent of African American students in California tested proficient in eighth grade math, while only 15 percent of Latinos tested proficient. That compares to 42 percent for white students.

In the California State University (CSU) system, 83 percent of African American students and 75 percent of Latinos who enrolled last year were placed in pre-college level math courses, according to a study put out by the advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity. In community colleges, 85 percent of incoming students were assessed as being unprepared for college-level math. Only one-in-five, the study shows, will go on to complete either a vocational or associates degree.

California adopted the CCSS in 2010, joining 44 other states and the District of Columbia. It is now in the process of developing computer-adapted assessments – called the Smarter Balance – expected to be in place by 2014. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown set aside some $1.25 billion for implementation of the CCSS, including enhancement of school technology and teacher development.

Not everyone is optimistic about the change.

Dianne Resek is professor of mathematics at San Francisco State University. A veteran of the so-called “math wars” – a two-decade old debate over just how math should be taught in schools – she says the new standards set teachers and their students up for failure.

“My problem with the CCSS is that it’s list of concepts of skills … [have] taken us way back to a mile wide and an inch deep” by introducing a “laundry list” of skills that teachers have to cover. In low-income schools, particularly, she says the high teacher turnover rate means students end up with inexperienced math instructors who won’t be able to meet that challenge.

She also echoes other critics of the CCSS, who say the standards introduce concepts to students before they are cognitively ready. “So for example, in kindergarten, [the CCSS] has kids counting to a hundred. And if you come to kindergarten and haven’t counted much before, that’s a huge leap and you’re not going to catch on.”

The worry, she says, is that for traditionally underperforming students the CCSS will only widen an already yawning achievement gap.

Those concerns were fueled by the release of test results in states like New York and Kentucky, early adopters of the Common Core, which showed a sharp drop in test scores even among students that had traditionally done well in math.

Moschkovich says the problem in those states was that they introduced the assessments before making sure teachers were adequately prepared.

“Changing the test without changing instruction and expecting students to do well is stupid. You have to first change instruction,” she says, “then pilot the test. Don’t make it high stakes until instruction has changed.”

Changing instruction is exactly what Jim Ryan, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Executive Director for the San Francisco Unified School District, has been focused on.

“We are offering a great deal of professional development for CCSS implementation,” he says. “We are working with all schools that have come forward, and we continue to solicit more time and effort to work with teachers.”

Much of that work has gone toward developing a new curriculum for the math portion of the CCSS, which Ryan says will be introduced in 2014.

In the meantime, he says he is confident the new standards will help “narrow and hopefully bring together the discrepancy that we see now” in math scores. “The old standards were very algorithmic,” he notes. “Students had to learn processes and rules for how to solve for equations and variables, but it was very procedural. The students who didn’t learn those rules well continued to flounder.”

With the Common Core’s emphasis on conceptual understanding, alongside procedure, Ryan says teachers can now employ various approaches to math instruction that “meet the needs of students at all levels.”