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Third-grade math teacher Jessica Keown shows Jontayvis Chappell tricks to remember his multiplication tables.

In a state long plagued by low public school achievement, figuring out how to improve math scores is near the top of the list, especially in middle schools.

"That is a profound struggle in our state," state Superintendent of Education John White said.

Louisiana's latest test results point up the problem, again.

In LEAP results released last month, 42 percent of third-graders scored advanced or above in math – a key indicator.

But ascending grade by grade those scores dropped.

Only 25 percent of seventh-graders scored advanced or better, and 28 percent of eighth-graders did so.

Math scores for eighth-graders have declined four percentage points since 2015.

Those for sixth- and seventh-grades rose by a combined four percentage points during the same period.

Other indicators point up the state's math challenge.

Not only did Louisiana rank 43rd last year on the ACT, which measures college readiness.

The average score in math – 18.8 out of 36 – was the lowest of the four subjects tested, and well below the U.S. average of 20.7 for math knowledge.

Eighth-graders earlier this year finished 50th in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, dubbed the nation's report card.

Similar low rankings have been around for years.

How to improve math skills was the key topic last week during a brief "retreat" held by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policies for about 700,000 public school students.

What students are taught, and the skills of those who teach them, were recurring themes.

The state Department of Education said the latest math results "highlight a need for stronger mathematics instruction statewide, particularly in later elementary and middle grades, to help students to build better mathematics reasoning and general content knowledge."

Part of the problem, officials said, is that some math teachers, especially in grades six, seven and eight, lack the facts and figures needed to prepare students – content knowledge.

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"If there is one issue it is that we are really struggling to teach our kids what is in the curriculum," White said.

He said that is especially true in middle schools.

White said at the retreat, and repeated his views in a radio interview, that public schools struggle to attract the best math students out of college. "Where we are short is not just competing with Mississippi and Texas," he said. 

"It is competing with Exxon and Chevron and all of their extraordinary organizations that recruit math majors into their organizations and pay them lucrative salaries," White said.

Other veteran educators said bluntly that they have been shocked at the lack of knowledge among some math teachers.

Leaders of the Louisiana Association of Teachers of Mathematics did not respond to requests for comment.

How to improve what math teachers know is a daunting challenge, and potentially a costly one.

LSU offers something akin to a "micro" master's degree – called graduate certificates – in 10 areas.

The courses range from 12-to-18 credit hours, including one on math for advanced secondary instruction.

Michael Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, noted that the state has long suffered from a shortage of math and science teachers.

As a result, math teachers are sometimes forced into duty, even while they are still trying to meet certification requirements.

That means the state is both grappling with an educator shortage as well as questions about the skills of some already in the classroom.

"In a nutshell, that means we are doubling down on a problem we have already identified," said Tony Davis, a BESE member who lives in Natchitoches.

Whether the math curriculum for some grades is working is another question.

White told BESE members some of the curriculum is not conducive to students who are behind.

He said state officials are studying school districts where students showed noticeable gains on math scores.

The state has launched a bid to increase the number of students pursing careers in science, technology, math and engineering -- STEM.

But that drive too is hampered by math hurdles.

Only 1 in 4 high school students meet the target for math readiness.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.