UNITED STATES NEWS

The math problem: Kids are still behind. How can schools catch them up?

Aug 28, 2023, 9:15 PM

On a breezy July morning in South Seattle, a dozen elementary-aged students ran math relays behind an elementary school.

One by one, they raced to a table, where they scribbled answers to multiplication questions before sprinting back to high-five their teammate. These students are part of a summer program run by the nonprofit School Connect WA, designed to help them catch up on math and literacy skills lost during the pandemic. There are 25 students in the program, and all of them are one to three grades behind.

One 11-year-old boy couldn’t do two-digit subtraction. Thanks to the program and his mother, who has helped him each night, he’s caught up. Now, he says math is challenging, but he likes it.

Other kids haven’t fared so well.

Across the country, schools are scrambling to catch up students in math as post-pandemic test scores reveal the depth of missing skills. On average, students’ math knowledge is about half a school year behind where it should be, according to education analysts.

Children lost ground on reading tests, too, but the math declines were particularly striking. Experts say virtual learning complicated math instruction, making it tricky for teachers to guide students over a screen or spot weaknesses in problem-solving skills. Plus, parents were more likely to read with their children at home than practice math.

The result: Students’ math skills plummeted across the board, exacerbating racial and socioeconomic inequities in math performance. And students aren’t bouncing back as quickly as educators hoped, supercharging worries about how they will fare in high school and beyond.

___

The Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, is documenting the math crisis facing schools and highlighting progress. Members of the Collaborative are AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

___

Students had been making incremental progress on national math tests since 1990. But over the past year, fourth and eighth grade math scores slipped to the lowest levels in about 20 years, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

“It’s a generation’s worth of progress lost,” said Andrew Ho, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

At Moultrie Middle School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Jennifer Matthews has seen the pandemic fallout in her eighth grade classes. Her students have shown indifference to understanding her pre-algebra and Algebra I lessons.

“They don’t allow themselves to process the material. They don’t allow themselves to think, ‘This might take a day to understand or learn,’” she said.

And recently students have been coming to her classes with gaps in their understanding of math concepts. Basic fractions, for instance, continue to stump many of them, she said.

Using federal pandemic relief money, some schools have added tutors or piloted new curriculum approaches in the name of academic recovery. But that money has a looming expiration date: The September 2024 deadline for allocating funds will arrive before many children have caught up.

Like other districts across the country, Jefferson County Schools in Birmingham, Alabama, saw students’ math skills take a nosedive from 2019 to 2021. Leveraging pandemic aid, the district placed math coaches in all of their middle schools.

The coaches help teachers learn new and better ways to teach students. About 1 in 5 public schools in the United States have a math coach, according to federal data. The efforts appear to be paying off: State testing shows math scores have started to inch back up for most of the Jefferson County middle schools.

In Pittsburgh’s school system, which serves a student population that is 53% African American, special education teacher Ebonie Lamb said it’s “emotionally exhausting” to see the inequities between student groups. But she believes those academic gaps can be closed through culturally relevant lessons, and targeting teaching to each student’s skill level.

Lamb said she typically asks students to do a “walk a mile in my shoes” project in which they design shoes and describe their lives. It’s a way she can learn more about them as individuals. Ultimately, those connections help on the academic front. Last year, she and a co-teacher taught math in a small group format that allowed students to master skills at their own pace.

“All students in the class cannot follow the same, scripted curriculum and be on the same problem all the time,” she said.

Adding to the challenge of catching kids up is debate over how math should be taught. Over the years, experts say, the pendulum has swung between procedural learning, such as teaching kids to memorize how to solve problems step-by-step, and conceptual understanding, in which students grasp underlying math relationships.

“Stereotypically, math is that class that people don’t like. … For so many adults, math was taught just as memorization,” said Kevin Dykema, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “When people start to understand what’s going on, in whatever you’re learning but especially in math, you develop a new appreciation for it.”

Teaching math should not be an either-or situation, said Sarah Powell, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches math instruction. A shift too far in the conceptual direction, she said, risks alienating students who haven’t mastered the foundational skills.

“We actually do have to teach, and it is less sexy and it’s not as interesting,” she said.

In Spring, Texas, parent Aggie Gambino has often found herself searching YouTube for math videos. Giada, one of her twin 10-year-old daughters, has dyslexia and also struggles with math, especially word problems. Gambino says helping her daughter has proved challenging, given instructional approaches that differ from the way she was taught.

She wishes her daughter’s school would send home information on how students are being taught.

“The more parents understand how they’re being taught,” she said, “the better participant they can be in their child’s learning.”

Even at a nationally recognized magnet school, the lingering impact of the pandemic on students’ math skills is apparent. At the Townview School of Science and Engineering in Dallas, the incoming ninth graders in Lance Barasch’s summer camp course needed to relearn the meaning of words like “term” and “coefficient.”

“Then you can go back to what you’re really trying to teach,” he said.

Barasch wasn’t surprised that the teens were missing some skills after their chaotic middle school years.

The hope is that by taking a step back, students can begin to move forward.

___

Claire Bryan of The Seattle Times, Trisha Powell Crain of AL.com, Maura Turcotte of The Post and Courier, and Talia Richman of The Dallas Morning News contributed to this report.

___

The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

United States News

Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs poses in Los Angeles, Monday, July 15, 2024. Tubbs says he is r...

Associated Press

Former mayor known for guaranteed income programs launches bid for California lieutenant governor

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Michael Tubbs is running for lieutenant governor of California, returning to politics four years after voters in his Central Valley hometown ousted him as one of the country’s youngest mayors following his reboot of guaranteed income programs for the poor that made him a star. The 2026 campaign, announced Wednesday, offers […]

45 minutes ago

FILE - A logging truck drives on the Interstate 5 bridge that spans the Columbia River and connects...

Associated Press

Aging bridges in 16 states will be improved or replaced with the help of $5B in federal funding

Dozens of aging bridges in 16 states will be replaced or improved with the help of $5 billion in federal grants announced Wednesday by President Joe Biden’s administration, the latest beneficiaries of a massive infrastructure law. The projects range from coast to coast, with the largest providing an additional $1.4 billion to help replace two […]

2 hours ago

President Joe Biden speaks at a 2024 Prosperity Summit Tuesday, July 16, 2024, in North Las Vegas, ...

Associated Press

Biden aims to cut through voter disenchantment as he courts Latino voters at Las Vegas conference

LAS VEGAS (AP) — President Joe Biden is trying to shore up support among disenchanted voters key to his reelection chances as he meets Wednesday with members of a Latino civil rights organization in the battleground state of Nevada. Biden is set to deliver an address to the UnidosUS annual conference in Las Vegas, where […]

2 hours ago

FILE - The Mirage Hotel and Casino is seen in Las Vegas, on May 3, 2018. Gambling ends Wednesday, J...

Associated Press

After reshaping Las Vegas, The Mirage to be reinvented as part of a massive Hard Rock makeover

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Mirage is about to vanish from the Las Vegas Strip. Gambling ends and the doors close Wednesday at the iconic tropical island-themed hotel-casino that opened in 1989 with a fire-spewing volcano outside, and Siegfried & Roy’s lions and dolphins inside. Frenzied final days have seen standing-room crowds wagering to win […]

6 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives during the second day of th...

Associated Press

The stepped-up security around Trump is apparent, with agents walling him off from RNC crowds

MILWAUKEE (AP) — On the floor of the Republican National Convention Tuesday evening, vice presidential candidate JD Vance greeted and shook hands with excited delegates as he walked toward his seat. It was a marked contrast from former President Donald Trump, who entered the hall a few minutes later and was separated from supporters by […]

6 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives during the second day of th...

Sponsored Content by

MILWAUKEE (AP) — On the floor of the Republican National Convention Tuesday evening, vice presidential candidate JD Vance greeted and shook hands with excited delegates as he walked toward his seat. It was a marked contrast from former President Donald Trump, who entered the hall a few minutes later and was separated from supporters by […]

Sponsored Articles

...

Sanderson Ford

3 new rides for 3 new road trips in Arizona

It's time for the Sanderson Ford Memorial Day sale with the Mighty Fine 69 Anniversary, as Sanderson Ford turned 69 years old in May.

...

DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

The math problem: Kids are still behind. How can schools catch them up?