Today's College Freshmen Are 'Almost Damaged'

Instructors raise the alarm about math deficiencies, blame the pandemic
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 2, 2023 4:00 PM CDT
Today's College Freshmen Are 'Almost Damaged'
Students take part in a summer math boot camp on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2023 at George Mason University in Fairfax. Va.   (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

College students across the country are grappling with a fundamental problem as they arrive on campus—basic math. At many universities, engineering and biology majors are struggling to grasp fractions and exponents. More students are being placed into pre-college math, starting a semester or more behind for their majors. As the AP reports, colleges largely blame the disruptions of the pandemic, which had an outsize impact on math. Reading scores on the national test known as NAEP plummeted, but math scores fell further, by margins not seen in decades of testing. Other studies find that recovery has been slow.

"This is a huge issue," said Maria Emelianenko, chair of the math department at George Mason University in Virginia. "We're talking about college-level pre-calculus and calculus classes, and students cannot even add one-half and one-third." For Jessica Babcock, a Temple University math professor, the magnitude of the problem hit home last year as she graded quizzes in her intermediate algebra class, the lowest option for STEM majors. 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." Researchers say math learning suffered for various reasons. An intensely hands-on subject, math was hard to translate to virtual classrooms. When students fell behind in areas like algebra, gaps could go unnoticed for a year or more as they moved to subjects such as geometry or trigonometry. And at home, parents are generally more comfortable helping with reading than math.

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As with other learning setbacks, math issues are most pronounced among Black, Latino, low-income, and other vulnerable students, said Katharine Strunk, who led a study on learning delays in Michigan and is now dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Colleges say there's no quick fix. Many are trying to identify gaps sooner, adopting placement tests that delve deeper into math skills. Summer math camps and expanded tutoring also are becoming more common. Read the full story.

(More mathematics stories.)

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