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Walking the math path

Academic achievement expert Ernest Davenport helps students overcome barriers to using math and statistics

Last year in Chicago, educational psychology faculty member Ernest Davenport won the Best Paper Award at the International Conference on Education. The paper concluded and recommended that closing the achievement gap in math must begin before high school due to significant ethnic achievement differences that are already in place before students begin their high school coursework.

Davenport is an expert on academic achievement with an emphasis on mathematics. He also knows and works directly with students, not only on the University campus but also in the community.

That level of engagement began years ago as an assistant professor. He recalls working with a student struggling in a statistics course. The student explained that his adviser had steered him away from math classes as a “favor” because it was just easier for black students not to take them. Davenport was taken aback. By the time the student arrived in Davenport’s class, he had no post-high school math coursework to help him better grasp and succeed in statistics. He was a living example of Davenport’s research findings and helped to explain the racial gap in mathematics achievement.

When undergraduate members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity started a program to help academically at-risk high school students prepare for ACT and SAT testing, they approached Davenport. An alumnus of the fraternity, Davenport eagerly supported their efforts.

“My training, experience, and the fact that I was teaching testing at the University made me uniquely qualified for the task,” he says.

Today, the program has grown and Davenport has become its director. From mid-January to mid-March, he spends every Saturday working with 200 students. The ACT/SAT preparation program has directly affected the lives and careers of well over 2,400 students, largely disadvantaged students and from groups underrepresented in postsecondary education.

As one who works tirelessly on the issue of the mathematics achievement gap, Davenport continues to demonstrate to students the usefulness of mathematics and statistics in daily life, giving them a reason to better understand and use both.

“I enjoy working with students,” he says. “I want to show them that math is something people should not shy away from.”

Math creates a path

Davenport himself has always liked mathematics. It made more sense to him than other subjects. In high school, he continued taking the more challenging math courses that most of his peers avoided. As a junior, he took mathematical analysis, which combined trigonometry, logarithms, series, and sequences in one course. But that was the last regularly scheduled math class in high school. He had to take pre-calculus on his own.

With a scholarship to Duke University, Davenport decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science and psychology. But he also took math classes for fun.

While working as a student data analyst in the Department of Neuropharmacology, Davenport conducted statistical analysis on electroencephalography (EEG) wave data. This opened up the possibility of research. In his senior year he began considering graduate school, a foreign idea since he didn’t know anyone who went to graduate school.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1979, Davenport took up studies in quantitative psychology. His focus became testing processes and bases for differences found in testing, along with causes and correlations as to why those differences exist. He began collaborative research with a team under the direction of a pioneer in the field of psychometrics, the science of measuring and evaluating intelligence and personality.

“I was blessed to work with Lyle Jones,” says Davenport. “He was starting a project on ethnic differences in National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores. We did research on the relationship of course-taking and math achievement.”

Jones was a leading specialist in psychometrics, the science of measuring and evaluating intelligence and personality, at a time marked by calls for educational reform.

With his doctorate complete, Davenport joined the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota in 1986. Here he continued his work in the area of mathematics achievement and testing. He knew that taking more math did not necessarily translate into higher overall achievement, so he looked at a methodology that included utilizing data from high school students’ transcripts of performances on standardized math tests.

He has also pursued a methodological line of research that investigates mathematical artifacts of statistical procedures used in measurement, which encompasses research on reliability, dimensionality of data, profile analysis to help quantify diagnoses, and more.

Today Davenport works in an office on the first floor of the Education Sciences building. He faces a majestic view of the Mississippi River and the city of Minneapolis, home to many of the students he serves. His research continues to focus on ethnic achievement differences in mathematics, particularly on the consistency and reliability of achievement statistics.

“His work has made a difference,” says Geoffrey Maruyama, chair of the Department of Educational Psychology. “Through his ACT/SAT course, students have improved their test-taking skills, which helped them get admitted into selective colleges and universities that developed their skills and shaped their lives.”

Read more about Ernest Davenport and the Department of Educational Psychology.

Story by Melissa Dargay | February 2014

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