District leaders look for solutions to alarmingly low math proficiency—especially among Black students
By Mary Niederberger
Illustration by Kinsley Stocum
If all goes as planned, next year students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools who are struggling with math will be able to access a tutor around the clock whether they are stumped by homework after school or working independently in class.
The tutoring service is one effort the Pittsburgh district is making to deal with math proficiency rates that have plunged to alarming levels, particularly among Black students, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruptions to education.
At five Pittsburgh elementary schools, the math proficiency rate among Black students was 0%, according to results of the 2021 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams released in March. The proficiency rates at five other Pittsburgh elementary schools were under 2% for Black students.
The Pittsburgh district doesn’t stand alone with its achievement declines or search for solutions.
The problem is pervasive among Allegheny County school districts where a Black subgroup was identified in grades 3-8, the grade span tested for math and reading on the PSSAs. It takes 20 students per school to create a subgroup by the state’s standards, and in elementary and middle schools that have those subgroups math proficiency percentages frequently rank in the single digits.
Math proficiency is a severe problem in local charter schools as well, including at Propel Schools, the area’s largest charter school network with enrollment of about 3,800 students. At Propel, the percentage of Black students scoring proficient in math was in the single digits in all schools on the 2021 PSSAs.
Nationally math scores have taken a hit since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 with national reports showing that typical students started the current school year 9 to 11 percentile points behind in math, and that Black, brown and economically disadvantaged students lost even more ground. Students in the lower grade levels struggled more than older students.
Reading scores dropped as well but not by as much, with students nationally starting the school year 3 to 7 percentile points behind.
The drop in math scores draws attention because both Black and white students already were struggling with math before the pandemic. And Black student math scores have fallen so low that some national experts cite the need for immediate action to prevent students from suffering permanent losses.
“The reality is these scores were horrible before the pandemic. The pandemic just exacerbated the existing problems. We see that in all of the reports that are coming out now,” said Cassandra Brentley, director of special projects at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education.
Brentley oversees the Ready to Learn math mentoring program that started in some Pittsburgh middle schools in 2019 to address the wide racial achievement gaps in the Pittsburgh district.
The 2021 PSSA scores were released publicly in early March on the Future Ready PA Index. Results of the Keystone exams in algebra, English literature and biology for secondary students are also available on the site. But those results do not represent a particular school year as students take the exams at the conclusion of the courses and they are banked until the student reaches 11th grade.
The 2021 tests were the first set of state assessment results since 2019. The state Department of Education waived the PSSA exams in spring 2020 when the pandemic closed schools.
Months before the PSSA results were presented to districts, educators were using internal assessments to figure out where students stood with their math skills. Several school leaders told the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism that internal assessments showed results similar to the state numbers, sometimes worse.
Districts have spent the past year working on solutions and using federal pandemic funds provided by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund to purchase software, increase staff, overhaul curriculums and create programs that can help to fill in the gaps of lost learning at the same time they move students forward.
Bus driver shortages around Allegheny County, continue to be a barrier to getting students home from after-school programs that can offer students additional tutoring, district officials said.
Last month, students took the 2022 PSSA math exams and those results are expected to be released in the fall. But not all school officials expect to see major improvements by then despite their efforts this year.
“The math scores still concern me,” said Minika Jenkins, PPS chief academic officer.
Here’s a look at three districts and some of the plans they’ve made to address the crisis in math proficiency. They are Pittsburgh Public Schools, Woodland Hills School District and the Duquesne City School District. All have a majority Black enrollment, according to data from the state Department of Education. Roughly 65% of students in the Pittsburgh and Woodland Hills districts are economically disadvantaged. At Duquesne, 89% are economically disadvantaged.
The districts represent a variety of sizes with Pittsburgh’s enrollment at about 21,000, Woodland Hills at 3,200 and Duquesne’s at 445.
Pittsburgh Public Schools
Math proficiency across student groups, but especially among Black students, has been a long-standing problem for the Pittsburgh district.
Still, Pittsburgh administrators were initially reluctant to discuss 2021 PSSA scores when they were released, citing state education officials’ caveats that the scores should not be used for comparison because students in each district took them at different times under different conditions during the pandemic.
But Brian Campbell, director of the state education department’s bureau of curriculum, assessment and instruction, wrote to school administrators in a March email that PSSA “results may be more useful for evaluating academic impacts within a school or school entity.”
Jenkins, in an interview last week, was candid about the district’s math proficiency rates. She said the PSSA results were no surprise to Pittsburgh educators and that internal assessments given at the start of school showed even worse results.
“The PSSA data was actually more promising than what I saw in the internal data,” Jenkins said. “Our internal data gave me more perspective as to the sense of urgency that we have to do something.”
White students’ scores had dropped as well, but because most white students’ proficiency rates were higher before the pandemic, they did not drop as low as those of Black students. This is true nationally and in other districts locally as well.
An example in Pittsburgh is at Dilworth K-5, where white students saw math proficiency drop 30 percentage points to 56.8%. Math proficiency among Black students at Dilworth declined 36.2 points to 4.5%.
Jenkins said Pittsburgh teachers worked hard this school year to carry out academic plans that called for them to teach grade level math to their classes while at the same time, they met with small groups of students to remediate by working on skills they were lacking or fell behind on during the pandemic when they learned via paper packets for the last quarter of 2020 and then online during the 2020-2021 school year.
That alone was a challenge for teachers who were trying to meet the needs and fill in gaps for each student as some had continued to thrive and even excel during online learning while others fell far behind. But that delicate dance became even more difficult as it was done against the backdrop of continued pandemic distractions and interruptions including a school year that didn’t start until September because of transportation issues.
“We still had social distancing. We had masking challenges and busing and transportation challenges that meant some kids were in class and some were not,” Jenkins said. In addition, teachers lost about a month of instructional time during September when students were taking the state PSSAs and Keystone exams.
But once teachers had classrooms ready for instruction, they followed the district’s plan to both accelerate and remediate students in math skills at the same time by using the small group method, Jenkins said. They used assessments created by NWEA, a national educational testing firm, to figure out what math skills students had and had not mastered in order to create learning plans. That assessment software creates individual learning plans for each student, Jenkins said.
Though teachers also had used the system during the 2020-2021 school year, small group instruction was difficult online as students’ attention wavered both among those in the small groups and the larger group that was supposed to be working independently. In addition, both students and teachers were often learning the online school technology at the same time they were trying to teach and learn their lessons, Jenkins said.
“Small group is definitely more effective face-to-face,” Jenkins said.
The district used some of its ESSER funds to purchase online tools to help students including Blue Streak Math, a game-based math fluency program that assesses students math abilities as they play games and helps teachers to develop strategies to move students forward.
The district is poised to advertise a request for proposal for companies who operate 24-hour-a-day tutoring services and hopes to have such a service in place for next school year.
“All students need that on-demand help considering where we’ve been the past 2.5 years,” Jenkins said. “We tried to bring it in this year but it didn’t work out.”
PPS will also hold its Summer B.O.O.S.T Program for summer learning from July 5-29 for students in grades K-7.
Outside help for Pittsburgh
In addition to district-sponsored efforts in Pittsburgh, the Ready to Learn math program, operated by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education and Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, works to prepare middle school students at three Pittsburgh schools for success in algebra. It is funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and uses a mixture of technology and social justice to teach math.
The program started as a pilot in 2019 at Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 to address the large racial gaps in math test scores in the Pittsburgh schools. It launched fully the next fall at Milliones and Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy 6-12 and Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12, Brentley said.
Ready to Learn started as an in-person program with peer-to-peer mentoring done by local college students, Brentley said. The pandemic moved the program online, where it remains with hopes of returning to in-person in the 2022-2023 school year.
“The big thing is students either see themselves as someone who is good in math or not good in math. The program we started was to ensure we are building students’ confidence as well as competence,” Brently said.
The college mentors build a relationship with the middle school students who undergo a skills assessment using the online ALEKS program, which also creates individual learning plans for each student as they progress.
Students are then assigned a social justice issue to research using their math skills. A recent project involved researching food insecurity and its effects on residents of Allegheny County.
Students plotted where grocery stores are located to find areas where residents had access to fresh produce and other healthy foods. They also identified food deserts where residents had to travel far to get healthy food and connected food availability to race and income levels.
The students also looked at the health effects of not having access to fresh food, including the development of such illnesses as diabetes and high blood pressure.
At the end of the project they presented their findings, using tables and charts that showed percentages and other measurements and outcomes.
“Connecting math to the real world makes it real for them,” Brentley said.
The program was starting to show progress in the year before the pandemic closed schools, Brently said. She’s unsure of what the pandemic assessment data will look like because it was tougher to engage students online. Also, the number of students participating dropped from 100 when it was in-person to 40 when it went online.
James Fogarty, executive director of A+Schools, is so impressed with the Ready to Learn program that he is trying to get foundation support to expand it to other middle schools in the Pittsburgh district.
Woodland Hills School District
Culturally relevant lessons are a part of the plan in the Woodland Hills District as well.
Prior to the pandemic, Woodland Hills started to work with Pitt’s Center for Urban Development and Office of Child Development to help narrow the achievement gaps between Black and white students. Teacher professional development in recognizing implicit bias and the creation and use of culturally relevant lessons were a major focus of the district. Those and other curriculum changes made before the pandemic hit had been prompting some improvement in test scores, said Eddie Willson, director of curriculum and grants. But the 2021 PSSA results, along with internal assessments, were disappointing.
Woodland Hills’ 2021 PSSA results showed the percentage of Black students at Edgewood Elementary STEAM Academy who tested proficient or advanced on their math PSSAs dropped nearly 30 percentage points from 2019 to 3% in 2021. At Wilkins Elementary STEAM Academy, 6.7% of Black students scored proficient or above, down from 23.7%.
“We know the pandemic was hard on everyone,” Willson said. “You can see it across the board, especially in math. But at the same time, we are emboldened and excited by our local assessments which seem to be showing we are getting back to the place of closing that gap pretty quickly.”
In addition to a renewed focus on implicit bias and culturally relevant lessons, Woodland Hills also resumed its focus on its Charters to Success initiative of small-group work with math students in grades K-5. Teachers continued the program during online learning until March 2021 when students returned to class. But Willson said progress was slow because “it took a lot of time for teachers and students to get to a place where they were comfortable online.”
Likewise in middle school math, the district had instituted a 90-minute math block before the pandemic. But teachers found it difficult to keep students engaged for the entire time.
Willson did not provide specific data but said educators have noticed an increase in math scores since students and teachers returned to the classroom. He’s hoping those internal assessments will translate to better math performance on the 2022 PSSAs.
Duquesne City School District
Since last fall, small groups of students from the Duquesne City School District have walked a few blocks from their elementary school for math tutoring at a storefront building known as the Uplift Center.
The center was opened in October with some of the district’s federal pandemic funds to address an urgent deficit in math proficiency among students. Assessment scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams from spring 2021 showed that just 5.2% of all students were proficient in math. For Black students the news was worse, with only 2.5% scoring proficient or advanced. Internal district assessments showed similar results.
“They were terrible,” Superintendent Sue Mariani said of the proficiency rates that prompted school and community leaders to try to quickly address the problem. As Mariani spoke during an interview in late April, Duquesne students and others across the state were preparing to take the 2022 PSSAs in math.
Those results, available in the fall, will be the first measure of whether students are recovering from the academic losses they suffered during remote and interrupted learning over the past two years.
Mariani’s hope is that the single-digit proficiency rates will increase, though she knows she has a long road ahead in overcoming pandemic learning losses that came atop of already existing low achievement in the small, financially struggling district.
The Uplift Center was stymied in its attempt to provide tutoring for students by a lack of transportation. Duquesne did not have funding for buses to take students home when the center closed at 6:30 p.m. As a result only about 15 students were able to attend regularly.
“The potential that we have is not being utilized to its fullest because we don’t have transportation,” Mairiani said.
But, Mariani said, the pockets of improvement she saw among some of those students convinced her to provide one-to-one or small-group tutoring for students during the school day next year.
So, for the 2022-23 and 2023-2024 school years, the superintendent has budgeted some of the district’s federal funds to hire three instructional assistants to provide one-on-one and small-group math tutoring during the school day. But there will be a trade-off to that method because students will have to be pulled from instruction in other subjects.
“We’ll just have to figure that out,” Mariani said. “We’ll get creative.”
Though Propel Schools had math proficiency rates in the single digits at all schools and less than 1 percent at three of its schools, its leaders declined multiple requests to discuss what measures they are taking to help students improve or to share any internal assessment data that shows better results.
The biggest drop in math scores among Black students from 2019 to 2021 was at Propel McKeesport where the percentage dipped from 39 to 5. Propel McKeesport has traditionally been the system’s highest-achieving school.
School officials should not avoid acknowledging the drop in math scores, said James Fogarty, of A+Schools.
“This data tells us something. We shouldn’t be afraid of what it tells us. It’s that the kids are behind and they lost a lot of learning and it should come as no surprise to anyone,” Fogarty said.
“Let this be a rallying cry for what we can do to get support for our kids and for teachers. Let’s not hide from it.”
Mary Niederberger can be reached at email@example.com & on Twitter @MaryNied.