September 28, 2023
Math and College Admissions

The Pandemic Accelerated Already Declining Math Scores. It’s Time To Reverse That.

Pamela Burdman
The Pandemic Accelerated Already Declining Math Scores. It’s Time To Reverse That.

We’re starting to get a good look at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on math skills. It’s concerning, especially for underrepresented students. The effects are showing up among entering college students whose high school years were interrupted by the pandemic. 

According to college faculty, students are struggling with basic math skills— subtracting 8 from -6, for example—leading one math chair to say students are not just unprepared but “almost damaged” from the pandemic and the ensuing school shutdown.

The most recent ACT scores back up professors’ anecdotes, showing that students who were in middle and high school when COVID-19 shut the world down have not yet made a mathematics-education recovery.

Four graduating classes, or about 13.5 million students, have been affected by the pandemic. 

The class of 2022 earned an average ACT score of 19.8, the lowest in more than 30 years. Math scores have declined to 19.3.

The scores also reveal a deepening chasm that leaves Black, Latinx, and other underrepresented students even further behind when it comes to the math skills and the math courses they need to be competitive for college admissions. 

Black ACT test-takers scored an average of 16.01 and Latinx students scored an average of 17.5 on the 2022 ACT math section. White students scored an average of 20.6, and Asian students reached 24.7. That widening gap makes it harder for Black and Latinx students to be accepted into STEM degree programs or even access college at all. 

The decline in math scores predated the pandemic, but it was accelerated as inequities in resources, course offerings, and access to instruction became even more stark. 

We, as educators and policy makers, need to do better. And we need to do better quickly, before an entire generation of students loses the opportunity to meet their goals and their potential. 

In my recent op-ed in The Hechinger Report, I highlighted the importance of expanding advanced math options besides calculus for two reasons. First, courses such as statistics and data science better align with many students’ future areas of study. In addition, students who may have been turned off by traditional math courses have the potential to reengage with math, reopening their access to calculus and STEM futures. 

Recognizing that not every student has an interest in taking calculus makes it even more imperative for high school counselors and college admissions offices to value other advanced math courses, including data science and statistics.

The California State Board of Education took that step in July when it voted to prioritize data science in the math curriculum as part of its math framework revision

We also need to be doing more to help high school and college students recover from their pandemic-related math learning losses. 

Numerous initiatives are in place across the country to help students catch up.

  • George Mason University offered a five-day math boot camp for students to solidify math skills and potentially place into a higher math course than what they tested into during orientation. 
  • In California, the Alameda Unified School District offered a one-month math program to provide Black and Latinx students with one-on-one coaching, small class sizes, and innovative math learning. It paid off—100 percent of students in the program raised their grades and are back on the college track. 
  • In Michigan, Grand Rapids Community College opened Bridges to College—Raider Ready, a free, seven-week course to prepare high school students for college courses and teach them what they may have missed during the pandemic years. 

The only way forward is an education system that ensures equitable access to math opportunities. All students deserve the chance to try, to learn, and to succeed at math. 

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