Across the United States, schools are working hard to help students catch up in math.

Test scores after the pandemic show just how behind students are. On average, education experts say American students’ math knowledge is about half a school year behind where it should be.

Children lost ground on reading tests, too, but the math declines were more severe. Experts say online learning made it more difficult for math instruction. It was harder for teachers to guide students over a screen or see weaknesses in their skills. At home, parents were more likely to read with their children than to practice math.

The result: students’ math skills declined around the nation. And students are not recovering as quickly as educators hoped. Educators worry about how they will perform in high school and whether science, technology and medical fields will be available to them.

Students had been making progress on national math tests since 1990. But over the past year, fourth- and eighth-grade math scores fell to the lowest levels in about 20 years. The information comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card."

“It’s a generation’s worth of progress lost,” said Andrew Ho. He is a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Jennifer Matthews teaches eighth grade at Moultrie Middle School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. She said her students have shown little interest in understanding her pre-algebra and Algebra I lessons.

“They don’t allow themselves to process the material. They don’t allow themselves to think, ‘This might take a day to understand or learn,’” she said.

Many students lack an understanding of math concepts. Basic fractions, for example, continue to confuse many of them, she said.

Using federal pandemic money, some schools have added tutors. Some have started new approaches to teaching to help in the recovery. But that money will run out by next September before many children have caught up.

Like other school systems across the country, Jefferson County Schools in Birmingham, Alabama, saw students’ math skills fall from 2019 to 2021. Using pandemic aid, the system placed math coaches in all middle schools.

The coaches help teachers learn new and better ways to teach students. About 1 in 5 public schools in the United States have a math coach, federal data says. The efforts appear to be working: State testing shows math scores have started to increase for most of the Jefferson County middle schools.

Adding to the difficulty of catching kids up is the debate over how math should be taught. Some say schools should center procedural learning, like teaching kids to memorize how to solve problems step-by-step. Others prefer conceptual understanding, in which students learn underlying math relationships.

Kevin Dykema is president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He said many people do not think of math as a fun subject. But “When people start to understand what’s going on, in whatever you’re learning but especially in math, you develop a new appreciation for it.”

Sarah Powell is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches math instruction. She said teaching math should not be either one way or another way. A change too far in the conceptual direction, she said, risks losing students who have not fully learned basic math skills.

Even at a nationally recognized magnet school, the effect of the pandemic on students’ math skills is clear. At the Townview School of Science and Engineering in Dallas, the incoming ninth graders in Lance Barasch's summer program needed to relearn the meaning of words like “term” and “coefficient.”

Barasch was not surprised that the students were missing some skills after their middle school years during the pandemic.

The hope is that by taking a step back, students can begin to move forward.

I’m Dan Novak.