COVID-19 Policy Considerations: Overcoming the COVID-Slide in Math

October 16, 2020

The Challenge

Source: Soland, J., Kuhfeld, M., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020, May 27). The impact of COVID-19 on student achievement and what it may mean for educators. Brookings Institution.

While some schools and districts have reopened their doors to full in-person instruction, many have either pursued a hybrid model or remained fully remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With this lack of face-to-face instruction, education stakeholders have become increasingly concerned that long-term engagement in non-traditional instructional methods (i.e. remote and hybrid learning) may negatively impact student achievement, particularly in mathematics.

For decades, achievement gaps in math have been persistent and slow to close. This gap, coupled with research on seasonal learning losses, provides insight into the projected impact of extended school closures on student achievement. Work in seasonal learning suggests that “summer slides” have led to a decline of at least one month of learning as students disengage with their academics. Further, research suggests that the impact of learning loss is greater for students of color and those in low-income households. According to a recent article from the Northwest Education Association (NWEA), a “COVID slide” may represent an even greater challenge, with the greatest impacts coming in math. Data indicates that students returned to school in fall 2020 equipped with less than 50% of the annual learning gains typically seen at the beginning of a school year, and in some cases, students are nearly a full year behind normal conditions.


Participation and mastery rates in Zearn Math, an online math program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, offer a glimpse into the crisis. When schools shut down in mid-March, participation and progress dropped off for students from low- and middle-income communities but rose to levels higher than before the shutdown for those from high-income areas. Despite subsequent gains in participation among low- and middle-income groups, the gap between their engagement and that of their higher-income peers persists. Instruction has continued despite the pandemic, but evidence suggests that if in-class instruction does not resume until January 2021, students will likely lose three to four months of learning if they receive average remote instruction or seven to 11 months with lower-quality remote instruction.

In the coming years, the impact of COVID-19 on student math achievement has the potential to bring additional long-term consequences, including greater inequities within STEM degree programs and professions. To address and combat the widening math achievement gap during the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers should consider policy and budgetary decisions that promote student access to quality teaching, resources, and instructional time specifically for mathematics. Regardless of whether school districts remain remote or reopen their schools, educators and stakeholders must be thoughtful in how they plan to recover the significant learning losses from spring school closures and take key steps to bolster math achievement during nontraditional learning.

Policy Considerations

In addition to the funding of important structural educational supports that benefit all subjects, including improving access to broadband and devices, addressing food insecurity, and prioritizing social-emotional learning for students, there are a number of mathematics-specific policy options that policymakers should be considering to address this issue.

Promote Best Practices in Math Instruction | Given the reality that full face-to-face instruction is unlikely to occur for the foreseeable future, school and district leaders can implement practices that provide math teachers with the tools to ensure high-quality, rigorous instruction. This can include creating cross-grade professional learning communities to design and implement tasks that incorporate relevant previous grade-level material with the on-grade level elements and providing additional professional development opportunities around effectively translating existing mathematics practices from the classroom into an online environment.

Rethink Assessments | Reassess how state or district summative assessments are used for accountability purposes for the 2020-21 school year and offer teachers the flexibility to use formative assessment strategies to gauge student learning and plan instruction. This may include providing additional professional development around designing and interpreting data collected from formative assessments like diagnostic or project-based assessments that have been administered remotely. Districts should also carefully consider how to interpret these assessments to avoid misinterpretation or misuse by administrators and educators.

Retain Highly Qualified and Effective Math Teachers | COVID-19 has created a number of human capital challenges for schools, especially as teachers are considering their own health and well-being, as well of that of their loved ones, when determining whether or not to remain in the profession. Given that the teacher is the most important factor in a student’s academic achievement, it is vital that schools and districts consider the impact of reopening policies on teacher attrition and implement policies that retain highly credentialed teachers, especially in the core subjects. This can include being mindful of how schools are increasing demands on teachers while reducing their capacity and including teachers in planning for hybrid or in-person reopening.

Consider Personalized Learning Models | With learning interruptions unevenly distributed across student populations, many schools have turned to more flexible, personalized learning models to better utilize instructional time and student strengths. Doing so would provide teachers with additional opportunities for intensive interventions for students that are struggling with concepts or those that were most heavily impacted by learning disruptions. This will require that teachers have the latitude to be nimble in their curricular decisions and may necessitate personalized investments in professional development so that they are equipped to adopt personalized models.

Prioritize Mathematics in Efforts to Make up for Lost Instructional Time | Additional opportunities to engage in rigorous, aligned math instruction will be an important tool in overcoming pandemic related learning losses. Schools and districts should consider increasing available instructional time dedicated to math by extending schedules, investing in summer enrichment programs, and reducing class sizes to provide individualized supports for students who are most affected.

Dismantle Traditional Tracking Policies | Many students – especially those who are low-income, non-native speakers, disabled, and/or members of racial or ethnic minority groups – have historically been victims of low expectations for achievement in mathematics. Traditional tracking practices have consistently disadvantaged groups of students by relegating them to low-level mathematics classes, where they repeat work with computational procedures year after year, fall further and further behind their peers in grade-level courses, and are not exposed to a significant amount of mathematical substance or the types of cognitively demanding tasks that lead to higher achievement. Schools and districts should work to assign students to teachers and classes with heterogeneous ability groups and provide opportunities for students of all levels to collaborate on rigorous instructional tasks.


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