U.S. math scores have declined since COVID-19 and states strategize to improve proficiency

Study.com reports on the decline of math scores among U.S. students since COVID-19 and what educators are doing about it.

Khristian Mecom
Posted 5/21/24

Study.com reports on the decline of math scores among U.S. students since COVID-19 and what educators are doing about it.

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U.S. math scores have declined since COVID-19 and states strategize to improve proficiency

Study.com reports on the decline of math scores among U.S. students since COVID-19 and what educators are doing about it.


Blue pencil rests on page of algebra math problems.

sweet_tomato // Shutterstock

Math scores of students in the United States have seen a historic downturn since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with a 7-point drop among 9-year-olds. This 2022 finding marks the first-ever decline for this age group. 

The situation worsens on a global scale with the 2022 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test showing an 18-point decrease, ranking U.S. students lower than 21 of 36 participating OECD (The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Although these significant declines have sparked concern among educators and parents, they have also paved the way for some states to change the way they teach mathematics.

To explore some potential solutions for this downturn, and take a look at what may have caused these issues, Study.com has turned to expert Jo Boaler, a renowned math professor at Stanford University, alongside comprehensive data from NAEP, the Elementary and Secondary STEM Education report, 2022 PISA scores, Nature.com, and The74.

How to improve math scores

Unfortunately, no one catchall solution will help improve math scores; a multi-pronged problem needs a variety of solutions. However, rethinking math curriculums and engaging students in new ways can help make strides in increasing math proficiency. In fact, some states have already begun to reimagine math education, making changes that have seen improved outcomes in student learning and test scores.

For example, Utah has worked to create new pathways and rethink the traditional progression of math courses. Working with The Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin and taking part in their Launch Years Initiative, Utah has made some proactive changes. The first includes implementing a structure where students were not pushed on one track toward calculus, but instead had the option to choose math courses that better aligned with their post-secondary goals or career trajectory. The state also began to offer students college credit for entry-level college math courses (statistics, quantitative reasoning, and college algebra).

Consequently, these changes had a dramatic impact on student test scores: "[Utah] did extremely well in PISA and also didn't decline significantly during the pandemic," says Boaler, the Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Mathematics Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and author of "Math-ish: Finding Creativity, Diversity, and Meaning in Mathematics." In fact, Utah's NAEP assessment scores improved so much in 2022, that they were ranked second in the nation. On top of that, the percentage of students completing four years of high school math rose from a meager 28% in 2012 to a staggering 87% in 2020.

According to Boaler, Utah has "managed to do things mathematically that many people have tried for years and not succeeded in doing in the U.S. For example, they don't teach algebra and geometry in high school. It's all integrated, which is much more compatible with the mathematics in the world, of course, and the mathematics in PISA."

Utah isn't alone in their efforts, as other states are also collaborating with The Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and are taking part in the Launch Years Initiative to make changes to their mathematics curriculum. For example, Washington is revamping their Algebra II curriculum to put less of an emphasis on calculus preparedness, and shift the focus to aspects of the subject that are useful for all students, with the addition of elements like quantitative reasoning and data science, says Arlene Crum, director of mathematics for the state education department. Similarly, Oregon is also moving away from a one-track curriculum model, and allowing students to pick from a variety of math subjects in their third and fourth year of high school.

Though their methodologies may differ, many states are looking to distance themselves from the calculus-driven single-track model, and hope that by offering their students more choice, they can feel empowered to shape their mathematics curriculum in ways that will support their
post-secondary journeys, whatever they may be. 

How did we get here

In order to understand the impact of these state-wide changes, it's important to see just how much the United States was struggling with mathematics, both on a national and global level.

The most current data from the OECD 2022 PISA scores reveals that 34% of 15-year-old students in the U.S. are underperforming, scoring at level 2 in the mathematics literacy portion of the test. For context, a score of 2 means the score is 420.07 or less, while a score of a 5 is a 606.99 or above. This also reflects broader trends captured by the National Science Board's Elementary and Secondary STEM Education report, which indicates the largest drop in test scores for 4th and 8th graders in the past 33 years.

 Factors contributing to declining math scores

There is no singular reason attributed to why student math scores have seen such a steep decline. Instead, this dip in scores can be traced back to several factors, all of which have contributed to the decrease in math proficiency among students. Some of these factors are systematic issues, while others were short-term events that had lasting impacts on the education system as a whole. 

The impact of rigid and linear learning frameworks

As previously touched upon, one factor to consider when investigating the lower math scores is how students learn math in schools, and how math courses are structured and taught. In many school districts, math courses are broken down by subject and taught in a linear fashion where students move from Algebra 1 to Geometry to Algebra 2 to Precalculus, and then on to more advanced math courses.

Due to her British background, Boaler offers a unique insight into this rigid framework and its drawbacks:

"One thing that's different is in England, we learn maths and it's not separated into a year of algebra and a year of geometry. We learn math and it all comes together. When I came here and I saw this separate course in algebra and geometry, that seemed very odd to me. I couldn't even work out where some subjects would go. Was that algebra? Was that geometry? Because it really is both."

Boaler continues, because of this rigid framework, some students are not able to reach higher-level math courses because there are, "more courses in front of calculus than there are years of high school so that pushes those courses into middle school and then middle schools think they have to put kids on separate tracks, sometimes using data from 4th grade. We have this situation where how students are doing in the very early years of school basically just decides what they do for the rest of their lives."

Essentially, as students get labeled and put into tracks (good at math or bad at math), they often get stuck in those tracks for the majority of their academic careers. Other barriers like racial and income factors also generally play a part in what track a student ends up in, with Black students and poorer students ending up in a "bad at math" track. This, in turn, hinders them from reaching advanced math courses, which has a lasting effect on their potential college careers and lives in general. 

Disparities in equity and access

The PISA results also reveal significant disparities across demographic groups. Students from the highest socioeconomic backgrounds outperform those from the lowest by a staggering 102 points, while students from more underserved communities, like Black and Hispanic students, tend to score below the national average.

The NAEP assessment data highlights this disparity as well, stating Black students' scores dropped 13 points compared to their 2020 scores, which widened the gap between white students to a 33-point deficit.

Boaler points out that students with disadvantages in family life or socioeconomic status are more likely to face systemic obstacles when it comes to access to education and technology, especially during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It could be that when everything went into lockdown, the wealthier children had more resources in their homes than the children who were less wealthy, and they had more mathematical games to play and mathematical things that they could buy and do online," she says. "That's where we start to see gaps widening."

The NAEP assessment also noted a similar trend regarding access to technology and other resources impacting test scores. For example, compared to students who were classified as lower performers, during the pandemic, high performers had more access to technology, a quiet place to study, and a teacher every day or almost every day.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting school closures had a large impact on student learning and test scores. School closures and the abrupt shift to online learning created substantial barriers to education, while further worsening existing disparities. 

Additionally, many students had to contend with hardships within their families, like the loss of a parent or loved one. In fact, according to one 2021 study, 1 out of every 500 children in the U.S. experienced a COVID-19-associated loss of a parent, guardian, or caregiver during the pandemic.

Boaler, agrees that COVID-19 played a significant role in declining test scores. She says, "We would have to acknowledge that the COVID[-19] period of time was pretty devastating for many people, for families, and for communities with a lot of health challenges and people losing people. You would expect that to affect students' achievement. I think it would be crazy if it didn't affect students' achievement."

When combining the loss of face-to-face learning, school disruptions, personal loss and grief, and other pandemic-related challenges, students lost about 35% of a school years' worth of learning. It's clear to see how this reduction in quality instruction time could seriously impact their ability to perform well academically.


This story was produced by Study.com and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.