Inside the new middle school math crisis

While other grades recover, middle schoolers are still in freefall. Two Virginia schools are bucking the trend.

By Steven Yoder December 30, 2022 at 8:00 a.m. EST Washington Post

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. — 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. Each Monday, the class does something equally public: Teachers review test performances, with charts showing the group’s recent performance and that of each student. “The whole class will either go ‘yay’ or ‘ohhhh,’ depending on how the class did,” Voss said.

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. Nationwide, students who started middle school early in the pandemic lost more ground in math than any other group and do not appear to be recovering.

Test data paints a dire picture: The educational assessment nonprofit NWEA found that seventh- and eighth-graders’ scores on its math assessments fell in 2022, the only group of pupils for whom that was true. NWEA researchers estimate it will take these students at least five years to catch up to where they would have been without the pandemic. On the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, average eighth-grade math scores declined eight points from 2019, hitting a level not seen since the early 2000s.

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.

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 proficiency 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, and, until recently, some districts have been slow to use the money they received.

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

Middle school is always hard — and the pandemic made it worse.

For a host of reasons, middle-schoolers were hardest hit by pandemic school closures. More independent than younger children and no longer overseen as closely by parents, they were more likely to sleep late, miss remote classes and struggle with the online format. Some, like high-schoolers, had adult responsibilities — babysitting younger siblings, for example — but, more often, these early teens lacked the learning strategies and executive functioning to manage, said Ben Williams, the assessment and research director for Roanoke County Public Schools, Northside’s school district.

Math, meanwhile, becomes more complicated in middle school, with the introduction of concepts such as equations and linear functions. And parents, even those who are strong in the subject, often lack the confidence to help their children, Williams said. Terrance Harrelson, an accountant and the father of Northside eighth-graders Braylen and Kylin Harrelson, found it tough to help his children work on math from home during the 2020-2021 school year because he did not understand the procedures being taught. “I would have to try to learn that process and try to get feedback out of my children. I need a textbook, I need some notes, right? Some examples. And I don’t have that,” he said.

Early adolescence also is a time of rapid cognitive change, when children need social interaction with peers and teachers to learn. For many middle-schoolers, working alone during the pandemic was a disaster.

That was the case for Evan Bruce, now a ninth-grader at Northside High School, across a parking lot from Northside Middle. 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 2½-hour stretches. “I had to start doing my work: Teachers were on me, my parents were on me,” Evan said. After only a few weeks, his grades started rising.

Northside Middle and Northside High have long-standing 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. Benson and Voss said they stay after school for an hour four times a week to work with students individually or in small groups. The district’s high school math teachers do the same, before and after school, said high school Principal Jill Green. Benson said she and Voss had been putting in the extra hours, unpaid, from before the pandemic.

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.

“It’s not a replicable model to have teachers volunteer or be ‘volun-told’ to stay after with students,” said Kenya Overton, a math education doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut and a former public school math teacher, who co-wrote a research brief on math catch-up strategies in June.

Students are behind in math and reading. Are schools doing enough?

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.

If the extra math time is used well, if teachers work with students to more fully develop skills, it can be “spectacular” for students, said Beth Kobett, an education professor at Maryland’s Stevenson University. “Extra time allows us to look at the progression more deeply and help students fill in maybe a missing piece here and there and make important connections,” she said.

Northside High ninth-grader Taylor Orange said the double period helped him recover in math. As a seventh-grader in the 2020 school year, he attended class in person only twice a week. On the days he was home, he struggled to pay attention via WebEx, and his grades fell. Now, the hour and a half plus of Algebra I each day gives him time to focus and ask questions, Taylor said, adding that teachers often pull students aside to work one-on-one. He’s now earning As and Bs.

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. “The kids like us,” said Puriefoy, the teacher who helped Evan two years ago, explaining why students’ scores have rebounded. Added 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.” Some research supports the idea that good teacher-student relationships are important to students’ achievement.

Back in school full-time last year as an eighth-grader, Evan averaged low Bs in math. Now in his second semester of Algebra I as a ninth-grader, things are looking even better; he finished the first semester with an 88 average and is at 100 percent so far in his second.

Puriefoy now teaches ninth-grade Algebra I at Northside High and has Evan again as a student. “I think he likes school. He’s social, he’s in sports, he’s got good friends. … He’s involved,” she said. “I really think that’s what a lot of the kids need, is to be connected.”

This story about middle school math was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.