4 things K-12 schools can do to combat math learning loss

Here's a four-step action plan for combating math learning loss in K-12.

Early in the pandemic, many predicted enormous learning losses as students worked remotely from March and through the fall. Though data this fall on learning loss has been mixed, most research shows the greatest impact on math in particular. Many students returning to a more “normal” school experience may find themselves behind.

It’s too soon to draw final conclusions from this attempt to quantify the pandemic’s toll on math performance. Many low-income students, who are predominately black and brown, didn’t take the assessments and therefore aren’t represented in this data. 

We may not have the full story yet, but we don’t need to wait for a more comprehensive study to start helping students meet performance goals. Here’s a four-step action plan for combating math learning loss in K-12.

1: Cultivate student resilience 

The first link in math skill development doesn’t have to do with math skills. Students need a supportive, consistent learning environment for every subject. But the pandemic has turned learning environments on their heads, especially for low-income and minority students, who are more likely to face obstacles to remote instruction. 

Research from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago shows that developing social-emotional skills like resilience can improve students’ performance on assessments and increase their likelihood of post-secondary success. Moreover, learning mindsets play a key role and can vary class to class, which means math teachers can do a lot to encourage stronger mindsets.

Guided by that research, UChicago created a framework called Cultivate for evaluating and improving in-classroom and home learning environments. The tool helps teachers better understand how learning environments influence students’ mindsets and therefore performance. This can include everything from how a teacher greets the class to how quickly assessments are graded.

Student resilience can always be strengthened. Through the remainder of the pandemic and the start of new semesters, both in-person and virtual, prioritize social-emotional well being. It’s the foundation of any skill building that comes next.

2: Administer formative assessments to identify math learning gaps

For students and teachers alike, poor outcomes on summative assessments can be distressing and can be viewed as a cause for punishment. These results inform, for an individual student, grades and progress in school and, on a larger scale, district funding and resource allocation. But they’re not the only way to do assessments.

Formative assessments are designed to identify areas of improvement, which tell teachers where they need to focus long before it’s time for a summative assessment.

The NWEA data isn’t fully generalizable: every district is made up of a unique population of students with different needs. Administrators should standardize formative assessments across schools and districts at each grade level to assess how to best support students in the spring and beyond. 

Formative math assessments should be low stakes, and administrators should focus on assessment as a tool for growth. It’s the best way to effectively gauge student learning gaps without the pressure of a graded test, and it promotes strong learning mindsets.

3: Use assessment data to inform individualized instruction

Formative assessments are a starting point, not an endpoint. To close learning gaps, teachers must give each student individualized feedback and attention.

Teachers can remove the stigma around bad grades by framing formative assessments as opportunities for individual growth. A teacher might point out that while a student struggled in one math skill, the student was really strong in another, an approach that is a lot more affirming for that student. In addition, prioritizing individualized, timely feedback makes the assessment itself a powerful tool for learning. 

In a subject like math, it’s likely that there will be common gaps among students’ math skills, which sets teachers up well for smaller groups and one-on-one instruction.

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4: Embrace flexible remote and hybrid learning schedules to make room for one-on-one and small-group learning

In the past, it’s been challenging for teachers to find the time to give each student individual attention to focus on learning gaps. But one silver lining of remote learning is that school days tend to be a lot more flexible.

Less rigid schedules may allow for blocks of time for individualized instruction. Math teachers might devote an extra twenty minutes of class time to breakout rooms over Zoom, where they can go over specific skill sets with students in small groups or one-on-one. Though challenging to implement, more personalized tutoring is one of the most effective solutions to learning loss.

Make math learning gains in 2021 through formative assessments and personalized attention

While the exact scope of learning loss remains to be seen, we can be sure it’s been an exceptionally challenging year for students and teachers alike.

No assessment and instruction strategy is one-size-fits-all. Teachers and district administrators should work together to define goals, identify learning gaps through formative assessments, and bridge those gaps with focused attention. And, above all, they should foster learning environments that cater to every student’s needs.

Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D, is the founder and CEO of Academic Approach, a national test-prep company that empowers students and educators from all backgrounds to succeed on and beyond college admissions tests. 

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