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Why is math accessibility important?

Learning Points:

National Educational Goals for mathematics and science achievement

The attainment of good math skills has been identified as one of the major goals of the American educational system. In September of 1989, President George Herbert Walker Bush together with the 50 State Governors convened the National Education Summit, during which was developed a set of strategic educational goals as part of an historic collaborative undertaking to transform our country's schools. One of the National Educational Goals developed in that meeting, and later instituted in federal legislation, was that "by the year 2000, United States students will be the first in the world in mathematics and science achievement."

American school children are falling behind in math

Despite the best intensions of policy makers to realize this laudable goal by the year 2000, the current reality is that American school children are still falling behind their peers in other industrialized countries. According to a study released by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), in 2003 US students ranked 24th in math literacy and 26th in problem-solving capabilities among the 41 nations studied, and the report concluded that American students "did not measure up to the international average in mathematics literacy and problem-solving skills." In another study looking at a different grouping of countries, the 2003 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) found similar results with a US ranking of 15th out of 45 countries examined for 8th grade math skills. When commenting on this alarming trend in US math scores, the US Department of Education stated in a recent publication entitled No Child Left Behind: Expanding the Promise, Guide to President Bush’s FY 2006 Education Agenda that "the failure to provide our high school students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed literally places our national prosperity at risk."

The problem of NAEP math scores and students with disabilities

Surely this is bad news for our country. But one often overlooked facet of this problem is that as bad as the case may be for math literacy among our nation's school children on the whole, the news is even bleaker when we consider math skills attainment for the nation's 6.5 million students with disabilities. According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), there is great disparity between the levels of math literacy for students with disabilities when compared to the results for students without disabilities. Since math scores for students with disabilities are also being closely examined by the state assessments required under No Child Left Behind, this issue has become all the more critical for each public school in the country.

The NAEP attempts to examine a number of disparities that may exist between disaggregated groups of students based upon such characteristics as race/ethnicity, gender, and free/reduced lunch participation. However, the greatest disparity ever recorded in NAEP's history of math assessments has been between students with disabilities and those without. Thankfully, math scores for all students--including students with disabilities--have improved somewhat over the last several years, but the scores for students with disabilities have not kept pace with those for students without disabilities.

Although the level of disparity between these two groups of students naturally fluctuates from year to year, it is hardly getting better. For instance, the NAEP math scores for 4th and 8th grades in 2007 revealed that 67% of 8th grade students with disabilities were found to be at the "below basic" (lowest) level of math literacy, as compared to only 26% of students without disabilities who fell into this category. On the other end of the spectrum, NAEP 2007 math scores revealed that 33% of 8th grade students without disabilities made it into the "at or above proficient" category of math literacy, while only 8% of students with disabilities performed at this level. While the results for 4th grade students was similarly alarming, the divergence in scores was much broader at the 8th grade level, which attests to the fact that when basic math literacy is not obtained during the critical formative years of elementary school, then the compounding academic consequences escalate this divergence as the years go by and math gets more complex.

Inaccessible math instruction and assessment a fundamental contributing factor

There are undoubtedly many factors at work which have a connection to the poor math performance of students with disabilities. A fundamental contributing factor is that virtually all math instructional content as well as math assessments are not designed to be accessible with the assistive technology many students with disabilities use. Although there has been a lot of focus over the past several years on universal design and accessibility in literary materials, there continues to be a great need to apply these same principles to math and science content.

Increasing math skills achievement for all students with universally designed math content

One of the major benefits to accessible math content which is digitally created and universally designed (such as math created using MathML), is that these materials can be used by all students--both those with and without disabilities--allowing everyone to benefit from the enhanced instructional value that is available. Both students who use assistive technologies, and those who do not, will be able to use these materials effectively. Using such universally designed math materials can be a major aid to helping all of our country's students reach new heights in math skills attainment. Making math instruction accessible in this way will enable every student to excel, and will be a vital step in protecting our nation's prosperity for decades to come.

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