Early grasp of fractions, long division predicts high school math achievement

Wen Huang
News Officer for Law, Policy and EconomicsUniversity Communications

A fifth-grader’s understanding of fractions and long division predicts their knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement in high school, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science.

Amy Claessens, assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Studies and one of the study’s authors, believes the findings will strengthen efforts to improve math achievement among United States high school students, which has remained stagnant over the past 30 years — and significantly behind many other countries, including China, Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Canada.

"We now know what we have long suspected to be true: Kids who fall behind early with fraction and long division skills will stay behind once they reach high school,” Claessens said. “This knowledge should motivate educators and policymakers to devise and implement strategies to improve instruction and learning in these critical areas.”

Claessens was part of a research team led by Carnegie Mellon University’s Robert Siegler, which examined two nationally representative data sets — one from the U.S. and one from the United Kingdom. The U.S. set included 599 children who were tested in 1997 as 10- to 12-year-olds and again in 2002 as 15- to 17-year-olds. The set from the U.K. included 3,677 children who were tested in 1980 as 10-year-olds and in 1986 as 16-year-olds. Despite the data being collected in two different countries almost 20 years apart, and after statistically controlling for parents’ education and income, and for the child’s own age, gender, I.Q., reading comprehension level and a host of other relevant factors, the importance of fractions and division for long-term mathematics learning was evident in both data sets.

Grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and the National Science Foundation’s Developmental and Learning Science Group at the Social, Behavioral and Economic Directorate funded the research. In addition to Claessens and Seigler, the research team includedGreg J. Duncan of the University of California, Irvine; Pamela E. Davis-Kean, Maria Ines Susperreguy and Meichu Chen, all of the University of Michigan; Kathryn Duckworth of the University of London; and Mimi Engel of Vanderbilt University.