Why Students Fell Further Behind in Math than Other Subjects During School Closures

Why Students Fell Further Behind in Math than Other Subjects During School Closures


School Closures and Learning Loss: A Devastating Combination

There are no easy policy choices during a pandemic. In a recent book entitled The Premonition about the role of state and local public health officials in the face of politicized resistance, Moneyball author Michael Lewis explained how school closures evolved as a focus of the public health response to novel communicable diseases. It’s one of the hardest choices of all - the decision to shut down a backbone of America’s social, cultural, and economic structure when weighed against the potential severity of a global health emergency.

Due to miraculous technological improvements over the last century, when schools shuttered their doors, we were able to use technology to continue teaching and learning. This massive social experiment played out unevenly, however, and many students suffered not only the uncertainty of when normalcy would return but also a measurable loss of learning during the online school format. Historically underserved and vulnerable populations were hit hardest, and more than a third of parents reported serious concerns about their children’s mental health.

Math Learning Loss and Why It Was So Pronounced

The Brookings Institution found that average math test scores in grades 3-8 fell at roughly double the rate of reading scores between 2019 and 2021. Worse yet, achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students got wider overall, but the impact was again greater in math than reading.

So far, students aren’t recovering their learning loss quickly, either. On the NWEA assessments, elementary schoolers are showing signs of learning loss recovery but middle schoolers aren’t: eighth-graders may be six months off the pace as they prepare to enter high school this fall, and seventh-graders’ progress appears to be stagnant, as well.

Anecdotally, you can just ask the students themselves. Camille T., a fifth-grade student in California, gave a typical, heartbreaking summation of her virtual school experience, saying that she didn’t learn any new math content during virtual schooling. Not that she didn’t remember it, but that she never learned any in the first place! It’s absolutely devastating to hear students say things like that. To summarize a 2021 McKinsey analysis, in the early months of the pandemic (spring, 2020), students may not have been exposed to much new content. Then they experienced the typical “summer slide,” and rolled right into a “less efficient learning rate” beginning in the fall. Students like Camille suffered accordingly.

Why math? Well, math is very complex and builds upon itself, so a student in elementary school that never fully mastered their basic number facts could be expected to struggle mightily during middle school under the best circumstances, let alone a pandemic and an interruption of normal learning. Also, as PBS reminds us, the “language of math” is often not heard outside the math classroom, which contributes to a sense of difficulty and confusion even on the best of days. Combine that with generational upheaval and it’s a wonder that learning loss in math wasn’t even worse.

What Can You Do to Help Students Recover in Math?

Fortunately for your students, you’re the type of leader who hates to lose. You’ve seen the math learning loss due to COVID-19 firsthand in your school and you’re ready to do whatever it takes to try to do something about it. Here are some things you can implement as part of a research-based, multi-pronged strategy to address math learning loss in your school:

  • Block Scheduling in Math: Give your students the gift of time by creating “blocks” of time (e.g. a double period) dedicated to math teaching and learning. Provide ongoing, job-embedded professional development for teachers on how to use block time in an efficient and student-centered way.
  • In-School or After-School Tutoring: The gift of time extends to supplemental instruction, as well! Students already behind shouldn’t be removed from access to high-quality primary instruction, so structuring time within the school day to provide high-quality supplemental instruction is crucial. Littera can help.
  • Support Key Transition Points: By providing extra academic support before grades 2, 5, and 8, students will develop a firm foundation for the rigors of the next level.
  • Traditional or "Kick Start" Summer School: Though something to consider several months from now, both traditional and kick start summer school (where the focus is on preparing for the upcoming year) are proven to help get students back on track academically. Summer school, particularly kick start, also significantly improves students' confidence in their own math abilities.

No Half-Measures

How long will learning recovery take? The NWEA estimates that, depending on factors such as grade level, socioeconomic status, and more, it will take years:

Table sourced from NWEA research study and posted by Littera Education on a blog post about why students fell further behind in math than other subjects during school closures.

Adapted from NWEA Research study

Whatever the components of your multi-pronged strategy to combat student learning loss, especially in math, don’t settle for piecemeal programs that provide something nebulous like “extra help” or increasing study hall time in the master schedule. Go all-in. The older students in the above chart don’t have five more years of K-12 school to recover - they need intense help and they need it now. You have the power - and the drive - to give it to them.

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