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Math professors: Incoming students can’t even add fractions, subtract

Colleges add tutoring, remedial courses as freshmen struggle post-COVID lockdowns

Universities across the country are struggling to address incoming students’ poor math skills after many fell behind academically during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

More than ever before, professors say freshmen cannot answer basic high school mathematics problems such as subtracting a positive number from a negative number or adding two fractions, according to a recent report from the Associated Press.

“We’re talking about college-level pre-calculus and calculus classes, and students cannot even add one-half and one-third,” Maria Emelianenko, chair of the George Mason University math department, told the Associated Press.

Emelianenko said new students’ math deficiencies have become such a “huge issue” that her northern Virginia university recently began a Math Boot Camp, and approximately 100 students chose to attend the week-long remedial program over the summer.

Other colleges and universities are seeing the same problem. Many first-year college students spent their 10th grade year – when algebra or geometry is typically taught – at home due to widespread, months-long lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools switched to virtual classrooms instead, but growing research indicates many students struggled with online learning and now lag behind academically.

At Temple University in Philadelphia, Professor Jessica Babcock told the AP she began noticing 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.”

Many universities are trying to be proactive, offering remedial summer programs, expanding tutoring services and providing more office hours with professors, according to AP. Math professors say they are thinking about new ways to teach the subject, too, 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,” Babcock told the news outlet.

But low academic performances likely will continue for years at the university level. Test scores show younger students affected by the lockdowns also are performing poorly 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. The NAEP is a U.S. Department of Education program that tracks students’ math and reading abilities.

From 2019, the year prior to the lockdowns, to 2022, eighth-grade students’ math scores dropped all across the country, including among both high- and low-academically performing students, the report found.

In 2022, four in 10 eighth-grade public school students performed below basic in math, according to the assessment. Students’ reading scores also fell, but the assessment found that their math skills declined more drastically.

The United States is not alone. Research in 2022 by the World Bank, Harvard University and the Brookings Institute also found widespread learning loss among students across the world during the COVID-19 lockdowns, some lasting for more than a year, The College Fix reported at the time.

“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,” The Economist reported last year. Another “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.”

Meanwhile, employers say they also are seeing basic deficiencies among new hires who attended college online during the pandemic. In August, The Wall Street Journal reported fewer recent graduates are passing certifications, assessments and other examinations needed for skilled labor jobs.

MORE: Students behind 30% to 60% in math, reading compared to normal school year: study

IMAGE: Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

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About the Author
Micaiah Bilger is an assistant editor at The College Fix.