The loss of mathematical potential is costing Britain alone billions in productivity, and all signs point to similar slippage in U.S. and elsewhere

A rigorous new study looking at the aptitudes indicated by responses to, formats of, and content presented in math exams from 1951 to 2006 shows a disturbing decline both in standards and an apparently correlated decline in student competence. The study looked at British 16-year old students’ exams and confirmed what many in the educational systems in Britain already recognized -- math competency is in an unprecedented weak state. And similar problems appear to be true in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The study says that the immediate effect of this inadequacy is not always readily apparent, but that the grave result is the loss of a generation of mathematicians that could have contributed diversely to the economy. Mathematicians are essential to tackle the more cerebral side of problems in topics as diverse as economics, biology, computer science, and mechanical design. Without these mathematicians, many problems go unsolved or have suboptimal solutions, and this translates to loss in domestic product and standard of living.

Of course such slippage is hard to monitor. However, the decline in abilities is far more visible. Despite government claims that it is carefully protecting standards by government testing of students, much like here in the U.S., the testing standards have been in steady decline, according to the study, since around 1970. Between 1951 and 1970 the study found the standards to be quite high and to demand competency in algebra, arithmetic and geometry, all essential topics. By the 1980s the testers began to try to simplify the test.

The study accuses the math education of being shallower and broader. The questions were easier and less demanding. Worse, it says, students were not allowed to independently formulate paths to solutions, but had to follow a dictated path or risk losing credit. Calculators snuck their way into the allowed list of supplies and formula sheets began to appear. This had a net effect of decreasing students’ basic math knowledge and arithmetic abilities.

Additionally, the actual grades themselves fell. The standard for a C fell to a mere 20% mark on the harder British standardized test. The apparent rise in scores from 1990 to present is "highly misleading" it said. It said this increase is due to easier tests, lower standards, and a cram-and-forget mentality on the part of students just looking to use the test to gain college admittance. Says the study, "Exams have changed from being a staging-post to further study to being a series of 'tick-boxes'."

British Deputy director of Reform and a co-author of the report Elizabeth Truss state that the loss of competent mathematicians at the university level is a trend that must be stopped. She states, "In today's Britain it is acceptable to say that you can't do maths, whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn't read. We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic."

Schools Minister Jim Knight disputes her remarks saying British standards are world class. Perhaps he's right, as many say standards are slipping worldwide. Knight was able to point to minor recent improvements. He stated, "Ucas figures show the number of people who took up places on full time maths degrees has gone up by 9.3% on last year. That is good news, but we agree maths is of vital importance to the economy and it is a top government priority to encourage more mathematicians in the future. In addition, we have launched a campaign to encourage more young people to consider careers in maths and science."

In Britain, where every position has a "shadow" political second in command, Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove was quick to comment, "India and China are producing four million graduates every year. The single largest area of graduate growth is mathematics, science and engineering. A third of graduates in China are engineers - here it's just 8%. Between 1994 and 2004, more than 30% of the physics departments in Britain disappeared."

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws added, "This is a damning critique of maths education in this country. Our education system is too often failing to get the basics right, which risks damaging the national economy."

While many in the U.S. remain unconcerned about such developments in Britain, similar signs of slippage are showing up in the U.S. In fact many physics programs in the U.S. are gradually losing funding or disappearing. The last U.S. particle physics lab is on the verge of collapse and is only being kept afloat thanks to private donations. As mentioned, such trends may seem harmless, but promise to greatly harm the world economy.

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