As Colorado students’ math scores have continued to plummet during the pandemic, Gov. Jared Polis and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers are intervening with legislation that aims to expand both teacher training and programs that have improved kids’ math skills while also coaching parents on how to help with math at home.
“Government is supposed to take care of education,” bill sponsor Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango said before a news conference Tuesday morning to discuss the legislation. “I think we just might lose a generation of kids who don’t have math skills. I’m not sure you pick those up quite as readily when you’re an adult.”
The legislation — also sponsored by Sen. Janice Marchman, D-Loveland, and Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument — elevates concerns about Colorado students struggling in math with a proposal for a new statewide focus on helping them improve their skills and excel.
The strategies contained in the bill — including teacher training, support for students and families outside school hours and a sharper focus on math literacy starting in preschool — add up to about $28 million over two years.
Colorado students across grades have increasingly struggled to make gains in math while falling short of grade-level benchmarks.
Less than a third of Colorado elementary and middle school students are meeting or exceeding grade level standards in math, according to a November report published by the nonprofit Keystone Center, which analyzed results from Colorado Measures of Academic Success and SAT exams.
Less than 35% of 11th grade students met or exceeded college readiness targets in math on the SAT — down more than 4 percentage points from 2019. Additionally, Colorado students fell short with results in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, referred to as NAEP, released last fall.
That data, which compares students’ academic achievement across states, illustrated setbacks in math among elementary and middle school students. Fourth graders in Colorado experienced significant declines, Chalkbeat Colorado reported, with proficiency falling to 36% of students in 2022 from about 44% of students in 2019.
Polis hit on the fact that kids in Colorado and across the country are falling behind their peers in math in other countries. Colorado fared above average with math scores before the pandemic and remains in line with the national average, Polis said, referring to NAEP results. But math proficiency nationally and in Colorado has dropped.
“As a nation, we compare very poorly to other wealthy nations in Europe and Asia regarding math achievement,” Polis said, adding, “I think that this investment will help more Colorado students achieve at or above grade level.”
Polis, who said that he “always did fine in math” but preferred social studies, government and history courses, noted that regardless of the direction students take after high school, their success hinges on a strong foundation in math. Students pursuing higher education, a career in the trades or even a career in politics need basic proficiency in math, Polis said.
“I think it’s also important that people in our leadership positions have an understanding of statistics — a key part of math that helps us understand the world better” and allows for data to inform policy, he said.
Polis called the legislative momentum behind improving students’ grasp of math “historic.”
“We can’t keep doing the same thing,” he said. “We need to change what we’re doing with what we know works.”
The new legislation would give schools more resources and teachers more instructional support as they work to help students better comprehend math, including by directing the Colorado Department of Education to offer free training for elementary, middle and high school teachers in evidence-based math strategies starting by January. The training would walk teachers through ways they can specifically aid students who are performing below grade level as well as children with disabilities and kids learning English. Close to 36,000 educators could benefit from training, Polis said, citing estimated figures from the Colorado Department of Education.
Additionally, the legislation would require incoming math teachers to be trained in evidence-based math practices while enrolled in their teacher preparation program and learn how to ensure kids below grade level, children with disabilities and students learning English make strides.
The bill also would create the Colorado academic accelerator grant program, a $25 million state investment that will fund community learning centers where kids can take advantage of tutoring when they’re not in school and where families can seek help with math. An additional $3 million in federal funding will go toward purchasing digital equipment and software. State officials estimate more than 50,000 students will benefit from the grant program, through which they will also be able to connect with mentors and enroll in remedial education programs.
“It is out of school — after school and out of school,” bill sponsor Lundeen said. “That’s a unique and interesting way to engage in a flexible way with parents and students so they can access it as it fits into their life in a beneficial way.”
A big part of the legislation centers on setting parents and caregivers up for success in guiding their students through math concepts. Polis and lawmakers want to make sure parents and caregivers are notified if their child is lagging in math and that both the state and schools equip them with tools and resources to effectively help.
Another legislative priority focuses on giving kids more opportunities to be exposed to math as they get ready for their first years of school, mandating that early childhood educators be well versed in early math literacy and incorporate it into their curriculum.
Meanwhile, Polis and lawmakers are also revising the Ninth Grade Success Grant program within the bill. That program prepares freshmen to remain on academic track with their high school peers. The legislation will prioritize grant applicants that incorporate programs built on evidence-based math skills and interventions, particularly for kids consistently struggling in math.
The legislation comes as state leaders shift their focus to math achievement from student literacy, which dominated concerns over the past decade in Colorado.
In 2012, the Colorado legislature passed the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act, which laid out requirements and resources aimed at helping students in kindergarten through third grade read on grade level, so they’re proficient by the time they reach fourth grade, which is when kids usually shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
Prior to announcing the legislation Tuesday, Polis’ 2023-24 budget proposal cited the need to invest more money in public education, specifically to advance students’ understanding of math.
“The pandemic has been devastating for students, especially in mathematics, where we saw significant drops in our fourth and eighth grade math scores,” his budget proposal stated. The proposal mentioned the governor’s plans to collaborate with lawmakers in an effort to make sure all school districts have high-quality materials and training and to put funding into additional resources to help “get every student back on track to math proficiency as soon as possible.”
Educators’ worries about their students’ challenges to grasp math concepts have become more pronounced during the pandemic. But they also aren’t completely surprised by the declines in math scores, as many students have dealt with life-altering consequences from the pandemic, including losing loved ones, grappling with housing instability and living in uncertainty as parents and caregivers transition between jobs.
“The last few years have been some of the toughest teachers have faced” and taken a toll on students, said Jena Graham, a third grade teacher at Hudson Elementary School in Weld County. Graham, who spoke at the news conference, said she has worked to build student confidence in their math abilities by having students talk to each other about math and move away from the idea that there’s only one right approach when problem solving.
“I think our biggest push in our school is getting kids to talk about the math, and I think the biggest change that I’ve seen since being a student myself is that we’re encouraging multiple strategies,” Graham said.
Marchman, another bill sponsor, has experience as a middle school math interventionist and said that math is just as important as literacy.
“We know that students need to be able to be competent in high school algebra,” Marchman said, “so that they are ready for (their) career and (the) workforce.”
This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.