Inside the new middle school math crisis
ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. — It was a Thursday morning in November, a few minutes into Ruby Voss’ 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 kids into two groups: Those who got the right answer wrote their initials on a touchscreen 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 their students’ test performance, with charts showing both 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,” said Voss.
That approach turns students into stakeholders in each other’s success, said Benson. And it’s possible because teachers dedicate significant 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 like 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 don’t appear to be recovering.
Test data paints a dire picture: Educational assessment nonprofit NWEA found that seventh and eighth graders’ scores on its math assessments fell in 2022, the only group of kids 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 absent 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, to 68 percent. (No tests were administered in 2020.) But in 2022, the pass rate roared back to its prepandemic level of 87 percent; the state average was just 46 percent. Northside doesn’t owe its rebound to a well-off student body: About 42 percent qualified of students for free and reduced-price lunch in 2019-20.
Falling behind in middle school math has ripple effects. Students who fail Algebra I (which most kids take in ninth grade) are far less likely to graduate high school on time and attend a four-year college. Math proficiency predicts both an individual’s future earnings and a country’s economic productivity more than skill in other subjects.
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 COVID-19, but relatively little of that money is going to academic recovery and, until recently, some districts have been slow to get those dollars out the door.
“Students are running out of time,” said Emily Morton, an NWEA research scientist.
For a host of reasons, middle schoolers were hardest hit by pandemic school closures. More independent than younger kids, 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, just 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, assessment and research director for Roanoke County Public Schools, the district where Northside is located.
Math, meanwhile, gets more complicated in middle school, with the introduction of concepts like equations and linear functions. And parents — even those who are strong in the subject — often lack the confidence to help their kids, Williams said. Terrance Harrelson, an accountant and the father of Northside Middle eighth graders Braylen and Kylin Harrelson, found it tough to help his kids work on math from home during the 2020-21 school year because he didn’t 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 is also a time of rapid cognitive change, when kids need social interactions 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, located across a parking lot from Northside Middle. Home five days a week during the 2020-21 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 two-and-a-half 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 rolling out.
While 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 those extra hours, unpaid, even before Covid.
Teachers are ideal tutors because they tend to be invested in their students, say education researchers. 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-authored a research brief on math catchup strategies in June.
Many districts are also 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, said Williams.
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, said Williams, that it is spending most of its American Rescue Plan money on hiring remedial teachers and tutors in its elementary schools, which don’t have the flexibility to build extra math time into class schedules.
Northside educators insist, though, that their students’ recovery is primarily due to strong teachers who are fanatically committed to meeting kids’ 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 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.