June 25, 2024

Colorado kids are floundering in math, a “crisis” that may add up to trouble for tomorrow’s workforce

Colorado students tumbled further behind in math as the pandemic closed schools and learning went largely virtual, according to a new analysis of this year’s state assessments results.

A new report from the Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit research group, found that math test scores plummeted for many students across the state, falling at an even faster rate than the state’s long-beleaguered literacy rate. 

In the 4th grade, for example, only 28.5% of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations, down 5 percentage points from 33.6% in 2019, becoming “a real point of concern statewide,” the report noted. Test results from this year also show that 35% of districts saw fewer than 20% of students meet or exceed expectations in math. By comparison, reading proficiency among fifth graders fell roughly 1 percentage point to 47.2% during that period. And 12% of districts had less than 25% of students meeting or exceeding expectations in reading. 

One Keystone center expert warned of a “learning loss” that could hobble students well into the future. 

“I think the limited data we have sends a clear message,” said Berrick Abramson, senior policy director and director of the education program at Keystone Policy Center. “We need to double down our efforts because we also know … a loss one year will be compounded as they move to the next level.”   

Another of the organization’s policy experts suggested students received less help with math at home than with reading — a concern when classrooms are occasionally shuttered because of coronavirus infections. 

The review looked at assessment participation rates across districts as well as student demographics and performance levels of test takers. 

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It comes two months after the release of state data that showed the pandemic accelerated performance differences between white students and students of color. 

The Keystone Policy Center also found that students in advanced grades are struggling understanding and retaining math skills. SAT results show that 44.2% of 11th graders met or exceeded expectations in math, with significant variation in students’ proficiency rates across districts.

Students across the country are facing similar struggles. Test results from the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP), an assessment conducted across states to gauge students’ achievement levels and understand their academic growth in math, reading, language and science, reveal that students on average were eight to 12 points behind in math. Elementary school students are performing worse than their older peers.

The decline in student math performance represents a fresh challenge at a time Colorado has been locked in a decadelong battle to bolster literacy rates, which also continue to lag.

Educators and policy experts recognize that uncertainty and stress from the pandemic contributed to students’ trouble learning. But they also emphasize the need to begin helping students overcome losses in math now, warning that students will only fall further behind in math as they move on to more advanced courses. Students who lack math skills may be ill-equipped for the demands of future jobs, positioning the state to continue hiring workers from other states. 

But schools can’t completely dial down their focus on literacy for the sake of boosting kids’ math skills, said Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center.

“I think we have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Schoales said. “We have to get more kids to read, and we have to get more kids to perform and know math.”

The Keystone Policy Center analyzed data from across districts as well as achievement and district demographics. Participation rates for both CMAS tests and the SAT declined from 2019, diminishing the ability to draw conclusions from the data, Abramson said.

Still, there are “enough consistent themes that we can draw inferences,” he said.

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“I think that we have a crisis, and I think that the state broadly speaking and policymakers need to dig into more specifically what some of the root causes of these results are,” Schoales said.

Read more about students’ struggles with math here. 

Schoales offers one hypothesis as to why Colorado students are falling short in math compared to other subjects: Kids depend on schools to learn math more than literacy.

Schoales noted that it’s easier for students to find extra support for reading than math, with more out-of-school programs and summer programs geared toward reading. He added that math is a subject many elementary school teachers say they find challenging to teach.

But on the bright side, he noted, “it may be easier to catch kids up.”

The math crisis is solvable, Schoales said, with many traditional and more creative ways to teach kids. But it will take different approaches for different students, particularly for students from low-income families. The data generally shows that those students are coming up short compared to more affluent peers, and the achievement gaps have grown.

When helping those students in particular improve their math skills, teachers will have to first prioritize their mental and emotional wellbeing, Schoales said.

If students aren’t excited to be at school, aren’t well fed and lack confidence, he said, “it’s really hard to get kids to learn, and it’s really hard to get kids to learn math, which is inherently for a lot of kids not something they want to take on.”

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The setback in students’ math performance doesn’t surprise Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning for the state education department.

Colsman said that gaps in math are one of many issues exacerbated by the pandemic. “A workforce gap” in math teachers, math interventionists and tutors hasn’t helped either, she said, noting that a state education department survey in July showed that more than 75 of Colorado’s 178 school districts had openings for math teachers in grades 6-12.

“Without having a qualified math teacher, it’s really hard for kids to make strides in mathematics,” Colsman said.

The state board of education wants to prioritize federal stimulus spending money to support students most impacted by the pandemic in grades 5-8, Colsman said. At the school level, educators must first assess whether students are meeting grade-level expectations and then split instructional time between helping students catch up while also making sure they stay on top of new coursework. 

That’s an approach Jason Cianfrance will use this year at Legacy High School in Broomfield where he teaches math. He said math teachers will also need to be diligent about narrowing the scope of their lessons to include only what students need to know to move forward.

“Math is sort of unique in how it works and how it builds on itself,” Cianfrance said. “Every kid has different strengths and weaknesses.”

Some students can immediately understand a problem after watching how it’s solved. Other students need more one-on-one attention, and some learn best by talking with other students, he said.

“A lot of those things didn’t work as well in our first trial run of how to do online schooling,” Cianfrance said.

He anticipates that some students will continue to lag in math skills but stressed that kids and teachers need to focus on progress as much as they do on grades.

His focus: “Are we making progress and are we doing it in a way that’s reasonably fast considering all of the factors at play?”

If Colorado students continue to trail behind in math and lack basic skills, many jobs — including in-demand jobs in the trades — will simply be “out of reach” for them.

That will only create more challenges for the state’s economy, which already relies heavily on recruiting skilled workers from other states to fill high-tech jobs.

“For the most part,” Schoales said, “it’s masked our ability to prepare our own.”

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Colorado kids are floundering in math, a “crisis” that may add up to trouble for tomorrow’s workforce