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I was reading a recent New York Times article, “The Pandemic Generation Goes to College. It Has Not Been Easy,” working my way down the list of documented issues and thinking, yep that makes sense.

“ …found herself floundering in something that should have been mastered—algebra.”

“ …grades are down, as well as standards.”

“Many students are tentative and anxious.”

“For many low-income students and students of color, who have historically faced bigger obstacles to earning a degree, classes seem to be that much harder and graduating that much tougher.”

It is indisputable that the pandemic was hugely disruptive to students’ schooling, and students with fewer resources to cushion the blow are likely to be having more difficulties.

In the article, the difficulties seem to be most acute when it comes to math. The recent release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores shows that scores on math have dropped more than scores for reading, suggesting that it is easier to “lose” the knowledge that one can demonstrate on a standardized assessment when it comes to math versus reading.

As it turns out, I have a fairly recent, perhaps illustrative, experience when it comes to math learning loss.

As part of my duties for one of my other regular writing gigs, producing content for Educational Endeavors, a Chicago-based educational assistance company, I took the SAT for the first time in almost 35 years.

While I don’t recall my precise scores in high school (possible humblebrag alert), I know that I was over 700 for both the math and (what was then called) verbal sections, scoring slightly higher on the verbal.[1]

Retaking what is now the writing and language section of the SAT, my score dipped to 660, primarily because I was confused by some of the test format, which I was totally unfamiliar with prior to taking the test. My proctor and debriefer, Akil Bello, broke down some of my rookie errors, making it clear that with a little bit more familiarity and more care in my work, I could probably get myself back up to my previous level.

Math was a different story. I scored a 570, and based on my debrief with Stephen Weber, one of my oldest friends and the chief of Educational Endeavors, I likely benefited from a couple of correct WAGs (wild-ass guesses). This is at least a 130-point decline from my score in 1987, though I was proud to beat my personal over/under guess of 520.

At some point in the past, I was likely certified as having “mastered” algebra, but when it came time to trot out that mastery on my SAT retake, it had deserted me almost entirely. There were questions on the test where I had literally no idea what it was being asked to do, even though I’m certain I once would’ve knocked out the solution successfully.

We’ve reached the thinking-out-loud part of the blog post where I have more questions than answers, and my thoughts are provisional and open to change with additional input, but here are a few conclusions I bounced around.

  1. Lack of continuing practice caused my math knowledge to degrade significantly. This obviously makes sense in the use-it-or-lose-it sense, though I was still surprised at how thoroughly some of this stuff appeared to be lost. I had no possible angles for attacking some of the problems they were so foreign.
  2. The way I learned this math was not conducive to retaining it over time. My chief memory of math class in high school was doing the old “plug and chug” with equations. I had no foundational knowledge as to what algebra was for beyond something that you had to know for school, and when it came to trigonometry, which became the true bane of my existence, forget about it.

The students struggling with math coming out of the pandemic seem to be experiencing a mix of these two things, perhaps further complicated by a pandemic schooling experience that never allowed certain key building blocks to bet set in the first place. There is also the matter of dealing with the trauma of the past and the ongoing disruption of the present. No one should be surprised by these struggles.

Perhaps I am eternally naïve to believe that we can use these challenges as a lens through which to do better in the future, but I can’t help but wonder if the decline in the NAEP scores and the difficulties students are experiencing in terms of what’s being called “learning loss” aren’t telling us something useful about how schooling works, and what we value when it comes to assessment.

The idea of “mastery” itself seems like a problem to me. When it comes to judging student writing, I’ve always said that “proficiency” is too low a bar because there is no terminal achievement when it comes to developing as a writer. Proficiency creates incentives to employ highly prescriptive teaching shortcuts (like the five-paragraph essay) that ultimately prevent students from developing further as writers. They also give students nothing to build on in terms of future progression.

We have too many students producing imitations of writing in order to prove proficiency, rather than allowing them the genuine struggle that writing requires in order to continue to progress. By focusing on building a writing practice, as I advocate, I believe that while students may get a bit rusty, what they’ve previously internalized can never be lost.

I wonder if “mastery” in math has a similar problem, that by setting a bar and a standard that allows students to meet it, we’ve incentivized teaching that allows students to clear that bar on a very temporary, provisional basis.

It’s true that by and large, my academic and postacademic trajectory has not required much algebra-related work, but I can’t help but think my life would be enhanced if I had learned math as a practice, a way of thinking, rather than a series of disjointed operations that I have to memorize just long enough to get everyone off my back about math. At the least, I could have tried to puzzle through the SAT questions that were instead entirely unfamiliar.

The positive news from the Times article is that it looks as though instructors and institutions are taking seriously the kinds of adjustments that will help students get back on track. It may result in students coming out “with a little bit less” as Lee DeVille, a University of Illinois math professor puts it, but what is the alternative that does not punish students for past conditions out of their control?

We can learn a lot in this moment from what it seems like students don’t know, and consider how to create courses and institutions that cushion the blow of whatever inevitable future disruptions come our way.

But that means doing more than figuring out how to get students to “catch up” with what we’ve been doing in the past.

[1] Believe me when I say whatever my scores were, they meant little to me at the time and mean nothing to me today.

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