Less than a third of Colorado elementary and middle school students are meeting or exceeding grade level benchmarks in math, signaling what some educators and education advocates see as a crisis in the race to help kids regain academic ground after so many disruptions to their learning throughout the pandemic.
Students’ struggles to excel in math are detailed in a report published Tuesday by the nonpartisan Keystone Policy Center, which analyzed test results from state assessments, both the Colorado Measures of Academic Success and SAT exams. The findings also highlight challenges among older students across the state: Less than 35% of 11th grade students met or exceeded college readiness targets in math on the SAT — down more than 4 percentage points from 2019 and down from 2021 results.
The report urges state leaders to take a closer look at ways to help students recover math skills as it builds on troubling data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, referred to as NAEP, released last month. That data, which compares students’ academic achievement across states, illustrated setbacks in math among elementary and middle school students. Fourth graders in Colorado experienced significant declines, Chalkbeat Colorado reported, with proficiency falling from about 44% of students in 2019 to 36% of students this year.
“Not only were we bad, but we’ve gotten significantly worse,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center, noting that Colorado schools are failing to help low-income elementary school students make progress in math.
The degree to which students are trailing behind in math has even caught the attention of Gov. Jared Polis, who in his 2023-24 budget proposal cited the need to invest more in public education, largely for the sake of helping students make gains in math.
“The pandemic has been devastating for students, especially in mathematics, where we saw significant drops in our fourth and eighth grade math scores,” his budget proposal states. It details how Polis plans to work with lawmakers to ensure all school districts have high-quality materials and training and to put money into additional resources to help “get every student back on track to math proficiency as soon as possible.”
Educators aren’t necessarily shocked by the declines in students’ math scores, particularly after a grueling two-and-a-half years while students were coping with a global pandemic and some were consequently dealing with losing loved ones, facing housing instability, and watching parents and caregivers transition between jobs.
“The pandemic increased the load of trauma in our students, and that diminishes our brain’s capacity to be in a space of learning,” said Wendy Ward Hoffer, senior director of content development and publications at the Denver nonprofit Public Education and Business Coalition.
“The brain can’t acquire new information unless it feels safe and settled,” added Ward Hoffer, who has worked in education for 30 years and now teaches workshops and coaches individual educators on effective instruction.
Joseph Bolz still sees many of his students trying to navigate trauma stirred up by the pandemic, with some who have had to step up and look after siblings, which disrupts their own schedule.
“It’s really hard to focus on learning anything, let alone math, when your basic needs are being threatened,” said Bolz, a mathematics teacher and department chair at George Washington High School in Denver.
He also has had to step back and help students learn how to be students again after taking classes remotely and wearing masks when first returning to school. Many forgot how to be social, Bolz said. His class periods now blend teaching math lessons with guiding students through how to collaborate and the kinds of roles they should take on in a group as they work through a problem together.
“We’re doing it,” he said, “but it’s a struggle.”
Still, educators and education advocates recognize the need for students to start making strides in math — both for their own futures and the entire state.
“The more the world becomes more complicated, the more that math is more important,” Schoales said. “Having a basic understanding of statistics is so important for being able to operate effectively in a democracy.”
Math skills are foundational for many careers, he pointed out, particularly in the trades, including for plumbers, programmers and electricians. Schoales worries that without a sharper focus on improving students’ understanding of math, Colorado’s workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields will rely more on drawing qualified employees from across state lines.
“Colorado doesn’t produce near the number of people that we need to have in order to fill those positions,” Schoales said.
The deficit also means students will be less prepared for higher education and will have fewer work opportunities, Ward Hoffer said.
They worry most about students who come from low-income families and students of color. In two-thirds of Colorado school districts, less than 14% of Black students meet or exceed grade level benchmarks, according to the Keystone Policy Center’s report.
“That’s incredibly horrible,” Schoales said.
If a student is not proficient in math by eighth grade, Ward Hoffer said, their chances of going to college drop significantly along with their chances of graduating college, which then sets them up to earn less, Ward Hoffer said.
“Math underachievement reinforces a cycle of poverty,” she said.
Changing the way math is taught — and talked about
Not every school or district in the state posted significant declines in math scores, and the report notes those that are struggling have a lot to learn from high performing schools that have succeeded in coaching different groups of students in math.
But math is a challenge for many people, Ward Hoffer said, and, with how hard it can be, it has become a subject that repels students and adults alike.
There is a “cultural norm in our country that it’s kind of OK to reject math,” said Ward Hoffer, who has written five books about teaching and learning and researched the ways that negative attitudes about math among teachers can shape students’ perceptions of math.
She has observed a “chameleon effect” in which students studying math absorb the negativity of the adults around them.
“We need all our teachers and the grown-ups in our country to make friends with math,” Ward Hoffer said, adding that low math scores are “a reflection of a culture that has a disdain for math as well as a reflection of the stress and impacts of the pandemic on our students and teachers.”
Bolz, who also serves as board treasurer of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics, is quick to intervene when he hears students say, “I’m not a math person.”
“There are just pervasive attitudes in our society that make it OK for students to say they’re not good at math,” Bolz said.
He has worked to spin a different narrative about his favorite subject, one that shows students how fun it can be as he nudges them to explore and play around with numbers.
Bolz also tries to help students make connections with the ways math is useful outside the classroom. For instance, his advanced placement statistics students last year analyzed demographics at their high school, which showed that 0.5% of students identified as nonbinary. Some groups of students in his class believed the actual percentage of students identifying as nonbinary was higher, and so they investigated and gathered statistical evidence to show that that number was wrong.
Both Bolz and Ward Hoffer want to revise teachers’ approach to math lessons, with more of a focus on helping students make sense of what they’re learning step by step, rather than simply memorizing mathematical processes and equations.
“We need to make sure they understand the depth and breadth of mathematics, not just, ‘can you answer a question on a standardized test?’” said Bolz, who also teaches integrated math 2 for freshmen and sophomores and higher level math analysis and approaches in his school’s International Baccalaureate program.
One example: When walking students through how to add two fractions together, Bolz breaks down what a common denominator is, why they need a common denominator and how they’re creating equivalent fractions to add together.
Ward Hoffer has seen teachers who have been able to help students who have fallen behind in math by two or three years catch up in one year. Effective math teachers, she said, hammer on problem solving strategies that can be transferred between concepts and laser their focus on helping students understand and make meaning. That way, when a student is taking a state test, they have an arsenal of skills and strategies they can apply, even if they’re encountering new types of math questions and problems, she said.
Drilling students on specific concepts won’t make up for lost time, and it risks turning them off to the subject even more, Ward Hoffer said.
Simply practicing for what will appear on a test won’t help either, Bolz said.
Standardized tests usually focus only on whether a student reaches the right answer, he noted, when math is a much more complex subject. Students will beat themselves up when their final answer is wrong instead of seeing that it might be just one small part of the math process or equation they were off on, he said.
“There’s a mismatch,” Bolz said. “These tests are poorly written.”
“A massive civil rights violation”
Students’ struggles to grasp math also stem from challenges among the teacher workforce, as many schools have experienced turnover among educators throughout the pandemic.
Colorado lacks enough math teachers and enough highly trained math teachers, Ward Hoffer said, and when teachers exit the profession after only a handful of years, it creates a “wisdom gap” in schools. When schools hire long-term substitute teachers to fill vacancies in math classes or turn to online programs with limited classroom instruction, it leaves students floundering without a quality teacher to lean on.
“They’re plugging holes rather than providing top-tier instruction,” Ward Hoffer said, adding, “this is a massive civil rights violation.”
Bolz has shouldered the consequences of a teacher shortage at his own school. When his department was down one teacher, one of his classes stretched to 40 students. After filling the position, his class is back down to 28 kids.
Recruiting more math teachers into classrooms will require paying teachers more, even doubling their pay, Ward Hoffer said, and putting more effort into ushering people of all backgrounds into education.
Schools also need to create “conditions for success” for educators, she said. That includes making sure schools are safe and teachers are supported by their administrators as well as equipping educators with high-quality instructional materials and giving them time to plan. That also means helping kids make progress from where they are rather than focusing on them lagging behind.
“Building them up from where they are I think is a much more valuable approach than believing that they’re behind and that they’re not on par,” Ward Hoffer said.
But turning around math scores isn’t the responsibility of teachers alone, she said. Students also need parents and other adults around them to show interest in the math they’re learning and explain the ways they need math.
“They need the inspiration, and that has to come from the people in their lives, not from a machine,” Ward Hoffer said. “I think we as adults have a duty to help our teachers by providing the good example and the inspiration to our kids because teachers are maxed out. We cannot put this on them as some kind of failure. Every day a teacher shows up for kids is an absolute victory as far as I’m concerned.”
It is just as important to begin steering students who show promise in math toward a career in teaching and promote the field of teaching as much as other disciplines, like engineering and medicine, Bolz said.
“This will be a way that we can attack the teacher shortage that is continuing to grow,” he said.
State lawmaker Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, is considering proposing legislation in the next legislative session that would provide schools resources to teach math — addressing students’ shortcomings with math in a similar way to how lawmakers intervened with students’ struggles to read on grade level through the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act. However, she knows that legislation costs a lot of money and has been taxing on school staff and does not want to replicate it for math.
McLachlan is horrified at how much students are lagging in their math scores, particularly those in younger grades. She said the state needs to hone in on how to help them overcome their challenges, including by listening to teachers, and look at how schools are teaching math and ensuring parents know how to help their kids at home.
The lawmaker, who previously taught English and journalism for 20 years at Durango School District 9-R, helped craft a bill near the end of the last legislative session focused on giving schools tools to teach math, but lawmakers ran out of time.
“I’m going to pull it out, dust it off and see if it’s something we need to address in that way,” McLachlan said, though it isn’t among the top five most pressing bills she is bringing forward.
The state education department is supporting school districts in helping students improve their math skills by facilitating a few different grant programs, including one funded by federal COVID stimulus funds that allow districts to access high-quality learning materials and curriculum in math in grades K-8 and in literacy in grades K-3. Additionally, school districts can prioritize math through the state’s high-impact tutoring program, a grant program created by legislation in 2021 to provide students in need with extra academic support.
The state must also focus on supporting teachers as it helps schools elevate students’ math scores, said Floyd Cobb, associate commissioner of student learning at the Colorado Department of Education.
“In some cases, our elementary teachers could benefit from increased depth of knowledge when it comes to mathematics instruction, particularly in terms of increased comfort,” Cobb said, noting that many teachers often feel more prepared to teach literacy over math in early grades.
A grasp of basic math is critical, Cobb said, to prepare students for more abstract concepts, such as fractions, and more advanced concepts in middle and high school.
“You can’t do pre-algebra without having a better understanding of division,” Cobb said. “You can’t do calculus without having a good understanding of algebra and/or trigonometry. And so that linear sequential nature of mathematics plays a huge role and a huge part, especially as students begin to get into the higher levels of mathematics itself.”