Opinion/Solutions: Inside the new middle school math crisis

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

While students are falling behind, a new approach in Virginia is making up lost ground.

What you should know

  • Nationwide, students who started middle school early in the pandemic lost more ground in math than any other group. And they do not appear to be recovering.
  • Falling behind in middle school math has ripple effects. Those students are far less likely to graduate from high school on time and attend four-year college.
  • But at one middle school in Virginia, pass rates on standardized tests are increasing – thanks to a novel approach.

It was a Thursday morning in November, a few minutes into Ruby Voss’s and Amber Benson’s eighth-grade math class at Northside Middle School just outside Roanoke, a city of roughly 100,000 in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Thursdays are spent in review in preparation for tests each Friday.

The teachers posted a question on-screen – “What’s the slope of the equation below?” – and gave students a few minutes to answer it.

The room grew loud as students jostled into line to bring their completed graphs to the front, where Voss separated them into two groups: Those who got the right answer wrote their initials on a touch screen up front, and those who answered incorrectly went to Benson for additional help.

It was a public exercise, with the whole class watching.

And it seems to be working.

At Northside, the share of eighth-graders passing the state math standards test fell by 19 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, reaching 68 percent. (No tests were administered in 2020.) But in 2022, the pass rate roared back to its pre-pandemic level of 87 percent; the state average was 46 percent.

Northside doesn’t owe its rebound to a well-off student body: About 42 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch in 2019-2020.

Each Monday, for example, the class does something equally public: Teachers review test performances, with charts showing the group’s recent performance and that of each student.

That approach turns students into stakeholders in each other’s success, Benson said.

And this is possible because teachers dedicate significant amounts of time to fostering relationships with students and helping them get to know one another.

At the start of each school year, for example, the class devotes a few days to trust-building exercises, not math.

That focus, combined with other strategies such as longer math periods and tutoring, has helped Northside Middle’s students bounce back from learning losses during the pandemic more quickly than middle-schoolers in many other districts, teachers and administrators here say.

Ripple effects

Falling behind in middle school math has ripple effects.

Those who fail Algebra I (which most students take in ninth grade) are far less likely to graduate from high school on time and attend four-year college. More than skill in other subjects, math proficiency predicts both an individual’s future earnings and a country’s economic productivity.

So far, efforts to help students recover may not be enough.

The federal American Rescue Plan Act, passed in April 2021, provided schools with nearly $200 billion to spend on needs related to the coronavirus, but relatively little of that money is going to academic recovery.

Until recently, some districts have been slow to use the money they received.

“Students are running out of time,” said Emily Morton, a research scientist.

For a host of reasons, middle-schoolers were hardest hit by pandemic school closures. For many, working alone during the pandemic was a disaster.

That was the case for Evan Bruce, now a ninth-grader at Northside High School.

Home five days a week during the 2020-2021 school year, Evan had trouble paying attention to remote lessons via WebEx. Midway into that year, his math grade hit single digits.

“I started lying a lot to my parents about doing assignments,” he said. “At home, I don’t have the motivation to get out of bed, open a laptop and start working.”

Many of his peers were similarly struggling: The share of the school’s seventh-graders passing the state’s standardized math test dropped by almost 30 percentage points from 2019 to 2021.

When Evan’s seventh-grade math teacher, Stacy Puriefoy, saw what was happening to his grades, she started calling Evan’s mother regularly to check in and arranged for him come to school one day a week for at least three hours of one-on-one tutoring.

Evan’s mother also began returning early from work to watch him study, for 2 1/2-hour stretches.

After only a few weeks, his grades started rising.

Northside Middle and Northside High have longstanding math intervention practices, such as tutoring and doubled-up math periods, that many districts across the county are just now introducing.

Although many districts are starting to hire tutors to work individually with students several times a week, at the Northside schools, math teachers tutor students themselves.

Ideal tutors

Teachers are ideal tutors because they tend to be invested in their students, education researchers say. They’re also more familiar with the material students are covering.

But some researchers are skeptical about any approach that relies on teachers to work without pay.

Many districts also are considering adding math time during the school day.

That approach has been in place in Roanoke County middle schools for almost 10 years. Students get more than an hour and a half of math a day, a change the district introduced after the stricter requirements of the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, Williams said.

The Roanoke County district is so confident that longer math periods will enable students to make up ground, Williams said, that it is spending most of its American Rescue Plan money on hiring remedial teachers and tutors in its elementary schools, which do not have the flexibility to build extra math time into class schedules.

Northside educators insist, though, that their students’ recovery is primarily the result of strong teachers who are fanatically committed to meeting children’s individual needs.

Said Northside Middle Principal Paul Lineburg: “Supporting students’ social-emotional needs, building positive relationships with them, is a key first step to their success in math.”

This report was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Each week, we partner with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues. This week’s stories come from other sources.