When I was in high school in the Bronx in the 1960s, they didn’t let us use calculators on tests. They hadn’t invented them yet.
I actually learned math in middle school, when my friends and I calculated baseball batting averages and pitchers’ earned run averages. In those days, newspapers only published the stats for the league leaders, so we did the calculations for everyone else on the Yankees and Mets. Today, when you watch a game on TV, all sorts of statistics that I never heard of as a kid are recalculated instantaneously.
Likewise, kids today have devices with unimaginable computational power and speed. They just punch in the numbers. As an aging dinosaur, I like to balance my checkbook without help to keep my mind sharp, but some days I don’t bother, and I let Excel work the numbers. I’ve used algebra and geometry for different projects, but I probably could have gotten by in life with very rudimentary math skills. I haven’t used trigonometry or calculus since I left high school.
So why do kids need to study math? This is an important question, because the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that as a result of pandemic-related school interruptions, fourth- and eight-graders’ math scores in standardized tests fell in nearly every state and demographic group, and in some states they fell precipitously. Only 36 percent of fourth-graders and 26 percent of eighth-graders were rated proficient in math. In New York, the scores were significantly worse for fourth-graders, with only 28 percent of students rated proficient, and slightly better than the national average for eighth-graders. These were the lowest percentages for New York students since the federal testing started in 1998.
More vulnerable students dropped even further behind their peers. A survey included with the test found that only half of low-performing fourth-graders had regular access to computers during the 2020-21 school year, and a third reported that they didn’t have a quiet place to do school work. Black and Latino students, who already scored lower than white and Asian students on previous exams, experienced the sharpest Covid-related declines. The test results and survey hint that in the near future, we may see a sharp increase in high school dropouts and a greater opportunity gap.
Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/AlanJSinger1.