WASHINGTON - A presidential panel said yesterday that America's math education system was "broken," and it called on schools to ensure children from preschool to middle school master key skills.

President Bush convened the National Mathematics Advisory Panel in April 2006 to address concerns that many of today's students lack the math know-how they need to become engineers and scientists.

The 24-member panel of mathematicians and education experts announced recommendations to improve instruction and make better textbooks and called on researchers to find ways to combat "mathematics anxiety."

Larry Faulkner, panel chairman and former president of the University of Texas at Austin, noted that many U.S. companies draw skilled workers from overseas, a pool he said was drying out as opportunities in other countries improved.

"The question is, are we going to be able to get the talent?" Faulkner said. "And it's not just a question of economic competitiveness. In the end, it's a question of whether, as a nation, we have enough technical prowess to assure our own security."

International test scores released last year showed American 15-year-olds trailed their peers from 23 industrialized countries in math.

The panel's report examines ways to make sure students have a strong grasp of the building blocks they need to understand algebra, a gateway to higher math. Students who complete algebra are more likely to attend college and graduate.

The panel sets out benchmark skills students need to know to have a strong foundation in math.

For instance, it calls for children to be able to add and subtract whole numbers by the end of third grade. By the time students leave fifth grade, they should be able to add and subtract fractions and decimals, it said.

The group also weighs in on the long-running math war, pitting traditionalists, who favor a focus on memorization, against those who say it is better to stress concepts and allow students to make connections on their own.

Students need to know math facts, Faulkner said, but they also need "some element of discovery."

Pennsylvania Education Department spokesman Michael Race said the agency still has to examine the report in detail, but "our initial review of their findings does nothing to divert from or contradict where we are heading."

The report, he said, emphasizes "introducing science and math at lower ages, and that is part of our longer-term plan to boost math and science proficiency."

New Jersey Department of Education spokesman Richard Vespucci said the department was not ready to comment yet.

F. Joseph Merlino, project director for the Math Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia, which runs a research program involving 125 schools in 46 school districts, said that while he agreed with the finding that "you can't teach so many topics that you aren't able to get into depth," he disagreed with the report's focus on improving algebra instruction as central to better math education for all students.

He said he favored tailoring math instruction to the learning styles of students more than the report does.

Inquirer staff writer Dan Hardy contributed to this article.