College Students Face Ongoing Difficulties in Basic Mathematics: The Pandemic Takes the Blame from Educators

by Lucas Garcia
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College Math Skills Decline

Diego Fonseca stared at the computer screen, exhaling deeply. This was his last shot at the math placement exam for his freshman year of college. His initial three attempts had relegated him to pre-calculus, a disappointing outcome for someone who had excelled in advanced physics and computer science during high school.

While he found trigonometry and functions manageable, basic algebra bewildered him. His struggles originated from a year of distance education in high school where he studied algebra.

“Having only remote classes meant that the grasp I had on the material was shaky,” Fonseca, a 19-year-old computer science major from Ashburn, Virginia, who aspired to take calculus, expressed. “I found it particularly challenging to handle higher-level algebra simply because I was not adequately informed.”

Fonseca is one of a hundred students who chose to spend a week of their summer vacation at George Mason University, fortifying their foundational math skills that had eroded during the period of remote learning induced by the pandemic. This initiative, known as the Math Boot Camp, was instigated due to a concerning increase in the number of incoming students with notable deficiencies in mathematics.

The Nationwide Dilemma

This is not an isolated issue; educational institutions throughout the U.S. are confronting similar setbacks. Students majoring in disciplines like engineering and biology are faltering even in foundational mathematical concepts like fractions and exponents. More students find themselves enrolled in pre-college math courses, causing delays in their major-specific curricula.

Educators largely attribute these educational gaps to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), while reading scores have dipped, the decline in math scores is unprecedented, with recovery lagging.

At George Mason, the consequences are palpable: fewer students are progressing to calculus—the preliminary college-level course for several majors—and dropout rates are escalating. Maria Emelianenko, chair of the math department at George Mason, elucidates, “We are observing struggles in advanced courses like pre-calculus and calculus, where students can’t even perform basic operations like adding one-half to one-third.”

The Magnitude of the Issue

For Jessica Babcock, a math professor at Temple University, the gravity of the situation became unmistakable when grading quizzes that asked students to perform elementary algebra. No two answers were the same, and all were incorrect.

Pre-pandemic, roughly 800 students per semester were enrolled in Temple’s introductory algebra class, a course equivalent to ninth-grade math. By 2021, this number had swelled to nearly 1,400.

Brian Rider, chair of Temple’s math department, remarked, “It’s not merely a lack of preparedness; it’s almost as if the students are damaged. They are lagging significantly behind.”

Reasons and Responses

Research indicates that math education suffered for a multitude of reasons: the hands-on nature of the subject was difficult to replicate in a virtual environment, and weaknesses in subjects like algebra were often overlooked. Additionally, parents generally found it easier to assist with reading than with mathematics.

This negative impact of the pandemic is most severe among Black, Latino, and low-income students, according to Katharine Strunk, who has conducted studies on educational delays and serves as the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Universities are employing various strategies to remedy the situation. Some have introduced rigorous placement tests, while others have launched summer programs similar to George Mason’s, which reportedly improved participants’ placement test scores by an average of 59%. Many schools are replacing traditional remedial classes with “corequisite” classes that allow students to concurrently take foundational and advanced courses.

A Look at Individual Journeys

Back at George Mason’s Math Boot Camp, Fonseca felt he was regaining lost ground. Despite his hard work, he failed the algebra section of the placement test yet again and was slotted into pre-calculus. Ultimately, he decided to begin his higher education at Northern Virginia Community College, with plans to transfer to a four-year university in Virginia after two years. Subsequent to the boot camp, Fonseca took another placement test for the community college.

“Utilizing what I learned in the boot camp, I managed to qualify for calculus,” he shared. “I had no anticipation that this would happen.”


This reporting is part of a broader initiative by The Education Reporting Collaborative, an alliance of eight media organizations, to scrutinize and highlight the challenges and solutions related to the math education crisis. Funding support is provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with all content solely the responsibility of the Associated Press.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about College Math Skills Decline

What is the main issue discussed in the article?

The main issue discussed in the article is the notable decline in basic math skills among college students, with educators largely attributing this trend to the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who are the key stakeholders mentioned?

The key stakeholders mentioned include college students like Diego Fonseca, educators such as Maria Emelianenko and Jessica Babcock, and educational institutions like George Mason University and Temple University.

What solutions are educational institutions implementing?

Educational institutions are implementing a variety of solutions such as rigorous placement tests, summer boot camps to improve foundational skills, and “corequisite” classes that allow students to take foundational and advanced courses concurrently. Some schools are also expanding peer tutoring programs.

How has the pandemic impacted math education according to studies?

Studies, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), indicate that while reading scores have declined due to the pandemic, the drop in math scores has been unprecedented. The decline has been particularly pronounced among Black, Latino, and low-income students.

Are any specific student demographics more affected than others?

Yes, the negative impact of the pandemic on math education is most severe among Black, Latino, and low-income students.

What is the Math Boot Camp at George Mason University?

The Math Boot Camp at George Mason University is a one-week summer program designed to help incoming students reinforce their foundational math skills that may have eroded during remote learning induced by the pandemic.

How many attempts did Diego Fonseca make at the math placement test?

Diego Fonseca made a total of four attempts at the math placement test. Despite his efforts, he was placed in pre-calculus each time.

What did Jessica Babcock notice while grading quizzes?

Jessica Babcock, a math professor at Temple University, noticed that none of the students provided the correct answer to a basic algebra question on the quiz. This led her to realize the gravity of the math skills decline among her students.

What are some of the reasons for students falling behind in math?

Some reasons for students falling behind include the challenge of translating a hands-on subject like math to virtual classrooms, gaps in foundational skills going unnoticed, and a general discomfort among parents in assisting their children with math homework.

What is the Education Reporting Collaborative?

The Education Reporting Collaborative is a coalition of eight media organizations that aims to document and highlight the challenges and potential solutions related to the crisis in math education.

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5 comments

Emily Smith September 1, 2023 - 6:16 am

Education inequality strikes again. So unfair that black and latino kids are hit the hardest. we really gotta do smthng about it.

Reply
Mark Johnson September 1, 2023 - 10:53 am

It’s kinda unfair to put all the blame on the pandemic tho. The education system was already kinda broken, don’t ya think?

Reply
Jane Doe September 1, 2023 - 10:57 am

Wow, this is eye-opening. Never thought college kids would struggle this much in math. Whats the world coming to?

Reply
Sarah Williams September 1, 2023 - 11:42 am

OMG, I can totally relate to Diego. Took me forever to get past pre-calc, and I thought I was good at math in HS!

Reply
Kevin Lee September 1, 2023 - 11:56 am

The Math Boot Camp idea is pretty cool. But what happens when the summer is over? one week can’t fix everything.

Reply

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