After Tumwater educator Kristi Martin tells people she teaches high school math, their reply is universal: “I’m not a math person.”

So she wasn’t surprised to learn a counterintuitive fact about American education: For as long as the federal government has measured learning, math scores have increased more than reading. That’s perhaps because making gains in math largely depends on studying the subject in school  — potentially giving rise to the aversion Martin hears. 

But now, that trend is playing out in reverse, as students are getting fewer hours of school-based learning amid the pandemic. On the limited measures of assessing student progress — based on tests administered online, where students are home with help or distractions and facing deep mental health issues — they are losing ground in math, while they’re generally sustaining their reading knowledge. 

There’s little research on why this trend exists, but there are several theories, such as: Math is more sequential, and falling behind can lead to more and more missed skills. Reading is simply a bigger part of life out of school.

More about student progress during COVID-19

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To Martin, it’s related to that knee-jerk response about her occupation. “It seems like math is a little more school dependent than reading,” she said. “It’s the narrative we have as a society about math.”

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As Washington school buildings slowly start to reopen again, differences in how students acquire — and forget — math and reading skills might inform educators’ decisions. But most experts agree that to help students bounce back, we first need to know where they are individually.

Is it really ‘learning loss’?

There’s pushback from some against the very term “learning loss.” It’s a misnomer because most students didn’t lose their learning — they just learned less than they would have if school hadn’t been disrupted by the pandemic. Some also say that the term minimizes the out-of-school learning that most students experience with their families, especially when they’re spending so much time together. 

And there are also questions about whether patterns in different subjects might stem from the vagaries of imperfect standardized tests.

Still, initial estimates revealed that while “learning loss” wasn’t as great as feared, it was consistently bigger in math than in reading. 

Renaissance, a company that administers a standardized test called Star, recently released its results for Washington’s first through eighth graders. In literacy, the average student score decreased by 1 percentile point between the fall of 2019 and 2020, compared to a national drop of 3.

In math, that number fell more dramatically: by 12 percentile points in Washington, compared to 15 nationally.

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The NWEA, a nonprofit organization that administers a test called MAP, found that among third through eighth graders nationwide, the average student performed between 5 to 10 percentile points worse in math when compared to the average student at their school last year.  Reading scores were about the same.

Those trends are the mirror image of what happens when school proceeds in person. 

In the decades before COVID-19, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a slow and steady rise in math scores in the fourth and eighth grades — and a flatter curve on reading. The NAEP is considered a relatively trustworthy standardized test, because it’s administered by the federal government for research purposes: It’s secure, and there are no consequences for low performance.

“In math, if someone makes an effort, if there’s been some curriculum changes, a push, you’ll see real big changes and pushes in scores,” said Peggy Carr, a longtime leader of the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm. “You didn’t see that type of improvement in reading. It’s just harder.”

Carr isn’t surprised by the standardized test results. “You learn a lot of math in school,” she said “You learn reading, too, but a lot of reading ability and comprehension happens at home.”

Why students are slipping more in math 

The data tells us that it’s much harder to increase reading scores than math scores — a problem that could be related to the way reading is taught in school. But when students have less time in school, math scores fall faster. Why?

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Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington, notes that students learn more of their math in school than they do reading. “It’s just more common for kids to be reading at home before bedtime than it is math,” he said. “It suggests that what schools do math wise matters more.”

Reading is fundamental to nearly every aspect of existence, so it makes sense that it’s less responsive to and dependent on classroom instruction. “Wherever kids go they’re reading signs, menus and encountering texts,” said Tim Daly, chief executive officer of EdNavigator, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that helps parents make educational decisions. 

Reading is also less sequential than math. By the end of second or third grade, most students have learned how to read — although the consequences of not knowing how to read are serious because texts become more complex and the questions they’re answering more nuanced.

In math, “you are explicitly taught new skills you can master, and it’s immediately measurable,” Daly said. Students have to learn skills that are completely new, like surface area or cosines, and each of those skills are distinct enough to assess.

Martin, the Tumwater teacher, agreed. “You just get better at reading,” she said. “With math, you have to know your numbers, then your shapes. With numbers, guess what, we’re going to start adding variables. Then we’re going to start graphing. … The skill set is more widespread than reading.”

Throughout the pandemic, school districts have sent armloads of books home with students, an easy way to encourage reading. It’s much more difficult for teachers to introduce new math topics and skills through computer screens, especially now, when people are burned out.

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“We’ve always seen that kids learn math in school,” Daly said. “The longer they’re away from school, the longer they go between having the type of instruction they’re accustomed to, I would imagine that would contribute to slower learning.”

The flip side of the “I’m not a math person” narrative that Martin often hears might also contribute. “I don’t know of anyone that’s OK with saying, ‘I’m illiterate’,” she said. 

Martin asked whether tests are better at gauging math fluency or critical thinking.

“If you rely heavily on fluency, sure, that’s a skill that isn’t getting practiced more regularly than reading,” she said. “If you’re going to assess somehow students’ problem-solving skills … that’s different, because it’s utilized every day.”

Moving forward

Should the different ways students understand math and reading knowledge change how schools approach academics when they reopen?

It depends who you ask. 

Some propose a more fundamental shift. “We have to treat early numeracy and numeracy in general as being just as essential as literacy,” Daly said. 

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But beyond that, he said, “We need to treat students as individuals, not in broad terms.”

Similarly, Goldhaber said districts shouldn’t be thinking of this as a subject-by-subject issue. Instead, they should be “targeting down to what do individual kids need on individual subjects. We only know that if there is some testing.”

And that’s what districts will need to do. A new state law charges school districts with developing “academic and student well-being recovery plans,” according to guidance Chris Reykdal, Washington superintendent of public instruction sent districts this month. 

The plans, meant to address “learning loss,” must speak to how districts will assess and serve “student needs due to the school building closures and extended time in remote learning.”

There might be more help on the way: President Biden’s back-to-school plan, according to legislation released earlier this week, would give $6.5 billion to states to help students make up any academics they might have missed. And Washington Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, is seeking additional state dollars to tackle academics. 

Reykdal is bracing for a long-term process of helping kids make up what they missed — at least for those who are younger and have more time left in school. 

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“I keep trying to make it clear to folks that want to race in there: The impact is bigger,” he said. “Your teachers and students are burned out. They’re not interested” in a rapid-fire, intensive catchup plan. 

He’s playing the long game: If you’re in grades K-9 this year, he said, “we can address the student learning slide by changing our calendars — we can actually have a similar impact to racing in there and swooping in to change it all at once.”

The recent state COVID-19 relief bill that passed mentioned adding instructional time or “balanced calendars” as a learning loss mitigation element. Districts will also have to identify specific diagnostic tests to show the level of student learning.

Older high school students will need more help. In January, Reykdal mentioned a potential plan to let students continue their high school education on college campuses without making them pay for the lessons that COVID-19 stole from them.

One silver lining: Math builds problem-solving skills and critical thinking — exactly the tools a kid needs to persist through a pandemic.

Teachers, Martin said, can build on those skills as students re-enter the classroom.

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“Students have learned more within the last year on how to become independent thinkers and also become better advocates for themselves,” she said. “That alone is really important for people to survive in society.”

One potential solution: Now that parents have essentially been co-teachers for the last year, it’s time to recognize their role.

“There are some things you just innately know,” said Bernadette Merikle, executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit partnership among seven South King County school districts to boost learning and share expertise. “You don’t need a test. If you’re watching your kid fall asleep in front of the computer, you know that probably they’re bored or tired.”

Highline Public Schools, Merikle said, has a list of things kids need to know by a certain point: For example, Merikle would know their daughter is ready for kindergarten because she knows a certain number of nursery rhymes.

But perhaps parents and schools alike should take a more holistic view — using common sense and intuition. 

“My oldest kid does not know 7 different distinct nursery rhymes by heart,” Merikle said. “I’m not worried about that because she knows every popular song on the radio now and can sing them — and has rhyming skills along with it.”