Your 4th Grader Probably Can’t Do This Math Problem – And That Should Worry You

A tree is 14 feet tall. How tall is the tree in inches?

Imagine your child—a fourth grader—confronts this problem on a test. Would you expect him or her to be able to answer it? I’d say: Yes. Absolutely. I would be concerned if my son or daughter couldn’t.

Why? For one thing, fourth graders are meant to know this material. One of the fourth grade math standards used by almost all states says that kids are supposed to know there are 12 inches in a foot. Which makes sense, because it’s pretty difficult to get through life in the U.S. without understanding that.

Fourth graders are also supposed to know how to multiply two-digit numbers: 12 x 14. But consider this —students are permitted to use a calculator on this item. Even if they have not mastered multiplication, they can still get the correct answer by punching the right buttons.

So you might be surprised to learn that, statistically speaking, your fourth grader would probably get this problem wrong. I know, I know. I’ve never met your kid. But if you have a fourth grader in an American public school, the odds say they’re going to come up short.

I know this because students across the country attempted this exact problem in 2017, as part of a national testing program called NAEP (“National Assessment of Educational Progress”) that’s done every couple years. It’s sometimes called the “Nation’s Report Card.” Not every student takes it. Instead, it is given to a representative sample of students.

Overall, just 35 percent of American fourth graders answered correctly. That means about 2 of every 3 kids got it wrong.

So what? Is it a big deal? I think it is. Here are three reasons why:

1. We want to raise children who are capable, confident, and ready for real life.

It’s not about a single math problem or passing a test. It’s about developing a sense of the world and how to function in it. A child who is unfamiliar with basic elements of measurement and mathematics is going to struggle when it comes time to get a job, manage borrowing and debt for a car or a home, and so forth. Kids deserve to learn the things that prepare them for adulthood.

2. Failure to learn material at the right time means kids are falling off-schedule.

Sure, a student who gets this problem incorrect in fourth grade might know this material in a year or two or three. But if they are still learning the basics in fifth and sixth grade, what are they not learning? Instead of preparing to tackle bigger challenges, they are circling around, again and again, to learn things they should already know. We should see our children moving forward, growing, thriving.

3. It’s not fair.

Even by fourth grade, some students have a big advantage over others that may only get larger with time. One major difference is that students in some states dramatically outperform students elsewhere. The top performing state on this item was Massachusetts, where 47 percent of students got the problem right. The state where students struggled most was Louisiana. Only 16 percent of students got the problem right there.

Put another way, a student in Massachusetts is about three times as likely as a peer in Louisiana to respond correctly. The problem is much more difficult for Louisiana students.

The trends get more alarming when we look at gaps between higher- and lower- income students. You see, students in Louisiana who qualify for subsidized meals at school got the problem right just 11 percent of the time. The combination of being lower-income and residing in a state that generally has lower performance is a double whammy.

Meanwhile, what about relatively higher-income students (i.e., those who are not eligible for subsidized meals) in a higher-performing state like Massachusetts? Well, those students got the problem correct 57 percent of the time. Five times as often.

Are middle income and affluent students in Massachusetts five times as smart as students who qualify for free lunch in Louisiana? Do they spend five times as much time on the topics of feet and inches? Do their parents care about school five times as much?

At EdNavigator we work with families in both states, and we know that none of those things is true. But the fact remains that they are capable of meeting a basic math challenge about five times as frequently.

How can we improve these results?

There is clearly a lot of work to be done, and everyone has a role to play. Educators should focus on the foundations of any good classroom: Rich material, engaging instruction, and accurate assessment. But they should also ensure they’re communicating clearly and regularly with families about student progress—and that they aren’t sugarcoating challenges or concerns.

Parents should be familiar with what their children should be learning each year and ask teachers for updates on their progress towards mastery. They also can help by supporting learning at home; for example, by reading with their children regularly, finding ways to sustain learning during the summer, and looking for opportunities to practice a little math. Simple steps like these can help us avoid ending up with a bunch of fourth graders who can’t do fourth grade math.

Curious how students in your state or city performed?

Find out below—and if you have a fourth grader at home, try posing the question to him or her tonight and see what you learn.

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