Have math scores dropped or are we just behind schedule? The answer is that both parts are true.
The Wall Street Journal reported that there were “sweeping declines” in mathematics test scores between 2019 and 2022. It comes as no surprise that student performance in mathematics dropped as a direct result of students receiving less instruction or lesser quality instruction during the pandemic. First of all, in 2020, all school buildings closed their doors in March and then had to make plans for how to continue instructing students outside of a physical school building. Students, in general, did not have access to as much mathematical content remotely as they would have in a face-to-face environment, not to mention all of the other social, emotional, technological, and economic challenges caused by the pandemic that inhibited learning and added stress to the lives of students and their families.
Suffice it to say, during the 2020-2021 school year students were also not receiving the same instruction they typically would have under normal circumstances. For those students who did not report to a school building it was the case that most teachers had to teach virtually for the first time and most students had to learn virtually for the first time. Students who did report to school were met with fewer learning opportunities than before — with many absences due to sickness or quarantine, alternate or shortened schedules, and an increased amount of stress across the school building. What this all meant is that students were exposed to less mathematics, and often less quality mathematics, for all or part of two or three different school years. It would have been shocking if we had not seen a decrease in student performance in mathematics on The Nation’s Report Card. What can we do to ensure students learn the missing content?
Educators can make sure students learn the content they need by teaching grade-level content in a way that reaches students where they are. This instruction needs to take into account student prior knowledge and needs to be tailored in ways that ensure students have access to the grade-level content being taught. Focusing on “learning loss” is not going to help students learn what they need to learn and it also serves to maintain the status quo. Dr. Robert Q. Berry III, former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and current Dean of the College of Education at the University of Arizona, talks about “teachers as identity builders” who, in turn, create classrooms that offer “students the opportunity to demonstrate their agency.” This idea of building student identity and supporting student agency is one that cuts across the mathematical content students are learning and positions them to be successful learners of mathematics. It creates a culture of learning. This focus on identity and agency is something that is often left out of “learning loss” conversations and can be a vital part of making sure that ALL students learn the mathematics that they may have missed. This is one of the keys to making sure that learning outcomes are equitable.
Schools across the country have received emergency funds from the Federal Government that are meant to help ensure that all students learn the mathematics content that they need to learn. This funding can be used for many different interventions, including providing tutoring and enrolling students in online courses. At the high school level, Algebra I is often the focus of interventions because Algebra I is often the gatekeeper to more advanced mathematics. Many school superintendents, including Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of North Carolina’s third-largest district have “emphasized that the purpose of these tutoring efforts [is] not to look backward, over old material, but to support students as they move forward through new concepts. ‘We don’t want to remediate,’ Contreras says emphatically. ‘We want to accelerate learning.’” Acceleration learning is where proven programs like CollegeReadyMath can really help by offering students the foundation they not only need to succeed in Algebra I but also in future mathematics courses. By ensuring students have a thorough understanding of the underlying concepts CollegeReadyMath helps students “learn and then embed these essential algebra concepts.” Some benefits of this program are that motivated students can work on the modules at home, at their own pace, and it could also be used by tutors as core mathematical content that ensures that students have the opportunity to learn any topics they may have missed. At the elementary and early middle school levels, programs like Zearn could serve to get students back on schedule with their mathematics learning.
For the most part students have missed out on learning a substantial amount of mathematics throughout the pandemic. Online coursework, tutoring, and other learning opportunities can help students to learn the mathematics that they normally would have learned in the absence of a global pandemic. These interventions also offer students the opportunity to learn mathematics beyond what they normally would have in a typical school setting. For several years to come, we will need to concentrate our efforts on making sure that all students have the mathematical knowledge needed to be college and career ready.