That approach turns students into stakeholders in each other’s success, said Benson. And it’s possible because teachers dedicate significant time to fostering relationships with students and helping them get to know one another. At the start of each school year, for example, the class devotes a few days to trust-building exercises, not math. That focus, combined with other strategies like longer math periods and tutoring, has helped Northside Middle’s students bounce back from learning losses during the pandemic more quickly than middle schoolers in many other districts, teachers and administrators here say. Nationwide, students who started middle school early in the pandemic lost more ground in math than any other group and don’t appear to be recovering.

Test data paints a dire picture: Educational assessment nonprofit NWEA found that seventh and eighth graders’ scores on its math assessments fell in 2022, the only group of kids for whom that was true. NWEA researchers estimate it will take these students at least five years to catch up to where they would have been absent the pandemic. On the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, average eighth grade math scores declined eight points from 2019, hitting a level not seen since the early 2000s.

At Northside, the share of eighth graders passing the state math standards test fell by 19 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, to 68 percent. (No tests were administered in 2020.) But in 2022, the pass rate roared back to its prepandemic level of 87 percent; the state average was just 46 percent. Northside doesn’t owe its rebound to a well-off student body: About 42 percent qualified of students for free and reduced-price lunch in 2019-20.

Falling behind in middle school math has ripple effects. Students who fail Algebra I (which most kids take in ninth grade) are far less likely to graduate high school on time and attend a four-year      college. Math proficiency predicts both an individual’s future earnings and a country’s economic productivity more than skill in other subjects.

So far, efforts to help students recover may not be enough. The federal American Rescue Plan Act, passed in April 2021, provided schools with nearly $200 billion to spend on needs related to COVID-19, but relatively little of that money is going to academic recovery and, until recently, some districts have been slow to get those dollars out the door.

For a host of reasons, middle schoolers were hardest hit by pandemic school closures. More independent than younger kids, and no longer overseen as closely by parents, they were more likely to sleep late, miss remote classes and struggle with the online format. Some, just like high schoolers, had adult responsibilities — babysitting younger siblings, for example — but more often these early teens lacked the learning strategies and executive functioning to manage, said Ben Williams, assessment and research director for Roanoke County Public Schools, the district where Northside is located.

Math, meanwhile, gets more complicated in middle school, with the introduction of concepts like equations and linear functions. And parents — even those who are strong in the subject — often lack the confidence to help their kids, Williams said. Terrance Harrelson, an accountant and the father of Northside Middle eighth graders Braylen and Kylin Harrelson, found it tough to help his kids work on math from home during the 2020-21 school year because he didn’t understand the procedures being taught. “I would have to try to learn that process and try to get feedback out of my children. I need a textbook, I need some notes, right? Some examples. And I don’t have that,” he said.

Read the full article about math crisis by Steven Yoder at The Hechinger Report.