Rosa Mendoza tried her best to make sure her children kept up with their math lessons during the prolonged school closures.
She hung a white board in the kitchen of their East Dallas apartment so she could work out problems alongside her 10-year-old daughter. To help her son, a first-grader when class suddenly went all-virtual in the spring, she grabbed rice out of the pantry, using the grains to convey addition and subtraction problems.
Still, Mendoza said, “I really didn’t see growth.” It filled her with anxiety.
The coronavirus pandemic interrupted the education of millions of students across the country — and progressing in math class proved to be a particular struggle, national and local data show.
A Dallas ISD analysis, for example, found that half of its students slipped in math during disruptions caused by COVID-19, compared to nearly a third in reading.
Educators point to a number of reasons to explain why: Parents are likely less comfortable drilling math problems at home as they are with helping in reading. Math can also be especially tough to learn virtually.
Teachers usually diagnose their students’ understanding by looking over their work, and children often rely on tactile learning tools — like blocks or coins — to help them grasp new concepts.
Plus, math lessons build on each other. Students must memorize and master foundational skills before solving more complicated equations later on. Those step-by-step processes can take a long time to stick, one researcher explained, but can be quicker to decay.
“If you can’t add, you can’t multiply. If you can’t multiply, you can’t divide,” said Marco Walder, an assistant principal at KIPP Destiny Elementary, a charter school in Dallas. “It just continues to spiral and spiral.”
The long-term impact, like so much else during this pandemic, is unclear. In Dallas’ public schools, leaders acknowledge they won’t meet pre-COVID academic targets by the end of the academic year. They’re bracing for a multi-year effort to fill in kids’ unfinished learning.
“We don’t, and shouldn’t, have an expectation that, ‘Oh, after two years all kids will be back,’” said Aaron Ware, Dallas ISD’s assessment director. “That just won’t be true. Some kids will recover quickly, some kids will recover on that timeline and others will struggle to recover.
“They’re each on their own trajectory, and we have to keep pushing.”
Richardson ISD Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum wondered whether her district was some sort of anomaly.
When she began parsing schools’ results from the Measure of Academic Progress, or MAP test, she expected to see problems in reading. But the real regression was in math.
She brought up the data — based on tests given at the beginning of the school year — on a call with administrators in other urban Texas districts. “They were all like: ‘We can’t believe this is happening, and we’re all seeing the exact same thing,’” Branum told the district’s board of trustees at a December meeting.
Test scores nationally for math were between 5 and 10 percentile points lower for students this year as compared with same-grade students last year, according to a recent study from the NWEA testing organization.
While the study’s authors cautioned that it provided an incomplete picture because many children were missing from this year’s data, the analysis showed that math progress was slower than in a typical year.
Dallas ISD trustees voted last month to lower the district’s academic goals for this school year. The most severe adjustment was in elementary math expectations.
The district’s trustees initially wanted at least 44% of third-graders meeting standards on the math portion of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exam this year. They lowered that target by 18 percentage points.
The administration still expects to meet its longer term goal: Getting 56% of third-grade students to meet math standards by 2025.
“We recognize that short term, we will not be able to recapture the loss,” said academics chief Shannon Trejo. But in two to three years? “I believe it can be done.”
District leaders are exploring various options to help students catch up, including extending the school year.
A council of Texas urban administrators plans to huddle in a “war room” next month to strategize on how to turn the math slide around, Branum said. They’ll look at redesigning tutoring, maximizing online tools and focusing lessons on the most important concepts.
“We know, especially in math, every skill spirals,” she said. “We want to be careful that if we make any adjustments to the curriculum that we don’t end up hurting our kids in the long term because we made changes in the short term to try to catch them up.”
School leaders also recognize they must find ways to support student’s emotional well-being. Many children already suffer from math anxiety, and now they’re having to learn the subject at a time filled with profound isolation and stress.
Some researchers hope this year’s upheaval will force administrators to reimagine math instruction.
The current system, they say, wasn’t working even before COVID-19 hit, when millions of children — especially Black and brown children — were already behind grade-level.
Tia Madkins, a University of Texas professor who focuses on equity issues, said it’s time for math curriculums to draw more connections to the real-world and emphasize less “rote skills and drill and kill.”
“Why would we want to go back to the old way?” she said. “This moment has only exacerbated these inequalities.”
Work in progress
At Frank Guzick Elementary — where Rosa Mendoza’s children attend school — most of the kids are Black or Hispanic. Nearly all of them come from low-income families.
Many struggled to consistently log into class after school went virtual last spring. Administrators rushed to put together paper learning packets for kids and sent kids home with math tools.
Even after the school helped her family secure an Internet hotspot, Mendoza said, each day of virtual learning felt like a “marathon.” It was hard to get 7-year-old David, who has ADHD, to sit still and listen.
But things started to change when David headed back to the traditional classroom for second grade this fall, albeit while wearing a dinosaur face mask. Even though he arrived with gaps, teacher Natalie Brown says he’s since “flourished.”
The little boy with thick-rimmed black glasses can now explain the different ways to represent money, and he loves counting the rocks he keeps in his collection.
Kids like David are supposed to come into Brown’s second-grade class knowing how to add and subtract by 20s. They’re supposed to leave it knowing how to add and subtract by thousands. It’s a critical grade — in any year — to fill in gaps in students’ knowledge.
Brown worries about the 3 in 10 kids at Guzick still learning virtually.
Teachers across the district faced a learning curve with the new education technology that was rolled out in response to the pandemic. Guzick Principal Adreana Davis said they’ve since adopted software programs that let teachers check over students’ online work and weigh in immediately.
“Especially in mathematics, you have to give them feedback right then and there,” she said, or else bad habits stick.
Getting each of her second-graders caught up is a work in progress, Brown said. At the front of her mind is the fact that these 7-year-olds have been through a lot.
“We have to adjust our expectations,” Brown said. “Hold high expectations, but know where to go back to meet students where they are.”
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The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.