Incoming students are often unable to do basic math at colleges across America. Many of them failed to learn the basics during COVID-19 lockdowns or even forgot some of what they previously learned. Math professors say freshmen cannot do basic things such as subtracting a positive number from a negative number or adding two fractions, according to the Associated Press.
“We’re talking about college-level pre-calculus and calculus classes, and students cannot even add one-half and one-third,” said Maria Emelianenko, chair of the George Mason University math department. It’s such a “huge issue” that her university, the largest in Virginia, recently began a Math Boot Camp, and over 100 students attended the week-long remedial program this summer.
Other colleges are experiencing the same problem. Many incoming college students spent their 10th grade year – when algebra or geometry is typically taught – at home due to the elimination of in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools closed and switched to online learning instead, but many students learned little during online learning and now lag behind academically.
At Temple University in Philadelphia, Professor Jessica Babcock witnessed the problem last year when grading STEM major students’ tests in her intermediate algebra course:
The quiz, a softball at the start of the fall semester, asked students to subtract eight from negative six.
‘I graded a whole bunch of papers in a row. No two papers had the same answer, and none of them were correct,’ she said. ‘It was a striking moment of, like, wow — this is significant and deep.’
Before the pandemic, about 800 students per semester were placed into that class, the equivalent of ninth grade math. By 2021, it swelled to nearly 1,400.
‘It’s not just that they’re unprepared, they’re almost damaged,’ said Brian Rider, Temple’s math chair. ‘I hate to use that term, but they’re so behind.’
Colleges are offering remedial summer programs, expanding tutoring services and, in some cases, providing more office hours with professors. Math professors are trying to come up with new ways to teach math to bored or demoralized students, including more hands-on, in-class instruction.
“We can’t change their preparation coming in, but we can work to meet their needs in the best way possible,” says Babcock.
But inability to do basic math likely will persist for years at the college level. Test scores show younger students affected by the lockdowns do even worse in math.
A new assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found the largest decline in math scores in 30 years among fourth- and eighth-grade students between 2019 and 2022. From 2019, the year before the lockdowns, to 2022, 8th-grade students’ math scores fell across the country, among both high- and low-academically performing students.
In 2022, four in 10 eighth-grade public school students performed below basic in math, the NAEP found. Students’ reading scores also fell, but by less than their math scores fell.
The problem afflicts other countries that had school closures, too. Research in 2022 by the World Bank, Harvard and the Brookings Institution also found pervasive learning loss among students across the world during the COVID-19 lockdowns, some of which lasted for over a year.
“In South Africa primary schoolchildren tested after a 22-week closure were found to have learned only about one-quarter of what they should have,” noted The Economist. A “study of 3,000 children in Mexico who had missed 48 weeks of in-person schooling suggests they appeared to have learned little or nothing during that time.”
Businesses are observing basic deficiencies among new employees who attended college online during the pandemic. In August, The Wall Street Journal noted that fewer recent graduates are passing certifications and examinations needed for skilled and professional jobs.
This article is republished with permission from Liberty Unyielding.
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