A $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow UF researcher Tim Jacobbe to assess and eventually influence the way middle-school and high-school students learn statistics.
The grant will support Jacobbe and a team of researchers as they design an assessment that identifies students' levels of statistical understanding.
"Statistics, in my opinion, is one of the most, if not the most applicable forms of math students can encounter, so it's important that students truly understand it," said Jacobbe, who is an assistant professor of math education and a statistics education researcher.
Although states make decisions about their own school curricula, they are increasingly signing onto the national standards movement, he said. Florida is one of 45 states that has adopted the national Common Core standards for math, which has increased expectations for students' knowledge of statistics for grades six to 12.
The Common Core State Standards initiative provides an outline for what students should learn in the areas of English and math during every school year, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
To increase understanding, there needs to be a better method of testing, Jacobbe said.
Common Core standards, developed in 2010, and its predecessor, the 2007 Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education, examined and set standards for learning but paid little attention to the assessment process.
"Our goal is to fill in that gap," Jacobbe said.
Kenyon College, the University of Minnesota and the Educational Testing Service will work with UF's College of Education on the study. About 2,800 students in grades six to 12 in Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Georgia will participate.
Jacobbe said it will take 18 months to develop the test. The first pilot tests will be available in April 2013, and an operational version will follow one year later.
Jacobbe and his research team plan to develop a series of questions that identifies levels of statistical understanding, labeled A through C. Level A represents early middle-school learning, and level C is associated with the high-school-level of understanding.
However, "just because a student is in high school doesn't mean they understand everything before it," Jacobbe said.
His assessment would help teachers determine the level at which they need to teach.
The test forces students to work through the four phases of understanding statistics, Jacobbe said.
To correctly interpret statistics, he said, one must identify the question the statistic seeks to answer, understand how the data is collected, how it is organized and how to analyze it.
Knowing how to interpret statistics is crucial to being an informed citizen, he said.
The goal of the study is to change how statistical understanding is measured, provide teachers with statistics-teaching resources and eventually to influence the way students are tested on statistics. The way students are tested now doesn't represent the problem-solving nature of statistics, he said.