The State of Math: PISA 2023
Mathematical understanding serves as the foundation for the problem-solving skills and analytical thinking that are critical for success in the world. Being good at math opens doors to success later in life – from careers in animation to urban planning to the auto industry.
Why This Matters
The common misconception that math is only relevant for careers in science or engineering – combined with the stereotype that it is okay to be bad – is the one-two punch that wreaks havoc on America’s approach to math education and leaves out too many students.
Results from PISA – an international assessment of 15-year-old students – serve to put all of us on notice: our young people can no longer afford for us to be comfortable with the harmful stereotype that it’s ok to be bad at math.
This release comes on the heels of the release of the latest Nation’s Report Card – which showed that thirteen-year-olds posted the largest decline ever in math.
Spread the Word
States Leading the Way
We see encouraging signs that state leaders across the nation believe that every child can be good at math – with efforts underway to open access to advanced classes, increase the use of high-quality classroom materials, and strengthen supports for educators.
Alabama’s Numeracy Act (SB171), passed in 2022, created the Office of Mathematics Improvement to monitor the implementation of mathematics screener assessments, diagnostic assessments, and formative assessments for grades K-5. It also requires all K-2 students to be assessed using an early numeracy screener and grades 4-5 students must be assessed by a fractional reading screener at least two times a year. The legislation also allocates one mathematics coach for every public K-5 school with a student population of less than 800, and two coaches for a school with a student population of 800 or more.
In 2023, the Arkansas legislature passed a sweeping education reform bill known as the LEARNS Act, which includes a provision requiring each public school district and open enrollment charter school to develop a math intervention plan in the ‘23-’24 school year for students in grades 3-8 who do not perform at or above grade level on the state assessment. The legislation further requires districts to report in the ‘24-’25 school year the types of interventions being used and the number of students using them.
Colorado’s SB23, passed this year, requires the Department of Education, by January 2024, to offer free optional training in evidence-informed practices in mathematics, including training specifically designed for elementary school educators and secondary school mathematics educators. The bill also creates a grant program for interventions to help students who are below grade level or struggling in mathematics, children with disabilities, and students who are English learners.
In May 2023, the Florida legislature passed a larger bill focused on literacy which includes a requirement for students in grades K-4 who show a “substantial deficiency in mathematics or dyscalculia” to receive support via intervention programs set out by the Department of Education and for parents to be notified of this support. It also requires districts to monitor these students’ performance and keep the parents updated and informed of performance progress.
In June 2023, the Louisiana legislature passed a bill that requires math teachers who teach grades 4-8 to take additional professional development related to numeracy; and requires districts to produce annual reports on the number of teachers who have successfully done so.
Since the passage of HB 986 in 2018, North Carolina has had automatic enrollment in advanced math courses for select students. Legislation requires that all students who score a level five (the highest level) on their end-of-grade tests in math be automatically placed in an advanced math class the following year.
Since implementation and after a 2019 update requiring more annual reporting by region and subgroups, enrollment for advanced math courses has increased in all grade levels where the courses are offered, and evidence has shown meaningful increases in low-income and minority students taking advanced math courses.
Texas passed legislation in 2023 (SB 2124) aimed at increasing the number of students in advanced mathematics courses in middle school and high school. The bill requires each school district and charter school to develop an advanced math program for middle school students such that the top 40% performers on the 5th grade math assessment exam be automatically enrolled in advanced math courses for 6th grade. This puts these advanced students on track to take Algebra 1 in their 8th-grade year, opening the door for them to take advanced classes such as calculus in high school. The parent may opt out of this automatic enrollment for their child.
In April 2022, Virginia passed legislation (HB938) requiring the state Board of Education to convene a group of stakeholders to provide feedback to the General Assembly on a number of key education goals, specifically including promoting excellence in math instruction. The report, released in the summer of 2023, called for enacting mathematics instruction reform that will prioritize the “science of math” approach to teaching mathematics in grades K-8, supporting the expansion of teacher professional learning opportunities to ensure high quality mathematics instruction is provided to all students. It also included recommendations to revise the state’s math standards, which now require the board to define “mastery” or proficiency for every grade level, that students have personalized mathematics pathways based on mastery and readiness, and that teachers determine the instructional sequence of the content that is best suited to meet the needs and goals of the student.
In March 2023, the West Virginia legislature passed HB 3035, known as the Third Grade Success Act, aimed at developing a multi-tiered system of support for early literacy and numeracy in kindergarten through grade 3. Among the math provisions, the bill requires the development of an “appropriate list of literacy and numeracy screening tools, the creation of individualized reading or mathematics improvement plans for students identified as having a deficiency in grades K-4, and participation in comprehensive training on the science of reading and numeracy instruction.
“When schools closed for in-person learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was math achievement scores that declined the most.
So, to get those students back on track, school and district leaders need to invest in ways to expand the amount of instruction that students receive going forward. After monitoring state and district investments, here are some of the most promising ideas that we’ve seen.”
- New York City’s “Summer Rising” program expanded to offer 110,000 seats—making it by far the largest summer program in the country—and still the demand outstripped the supply of available spots.
- In Dallas, a unique public-private partnership combined forces to provide 1,300 different summer programs for over 47,000 students. An independent evaluation found that the “dosage” of the programming mattered, and for every 10 days elementary students spent in summer school, they became 25% more likely to pass the state math exam.
- In Indianapolis, a nonprofit called The Mind Trust teamed up with the local United Way chapter to offer Indy Summer Learning Labs. The program served 5,000 students for five weeks of programming at 39 cites across the city, and participating students saw big gains in reading and math.
- The NCES School Pulse Panel data shows that more than a third of districts offered high-dosage tutoring last year, but publicly available data on the impact of tutoring investments is surprisingly thin. As one positive example, the New Jersey Tutoring Corps provided 500 low-performing students with 1-hour, small-group sessions 2-3 times per week. By the end of the year, the percentage of participants performing at grade level jumped from 16 to 40% in math.
- The Nebraska Department of Education was able to reach elementary and middle school students with the math platform Zearn in nearly 500 schools across the state. Nebraska students who consistently used the program had 2.5 times the growth in their state assessment scores than students who did not use it regularly. It also resulted in double-digit increases for Black and Latino students, students eligible for free/reduced lunch, and English learners. Zearn users saw similar gains in Louisiana, and Colorado and Ohio are now offering the program to students in their states.
- The Texas Education Agency (TEA) partnered with Carnegie Learning to provide educators and students with the Texas Math Solution. It focuses on high-quality (digital) instructional materials combined with interactive software that gives students practice on standards-aligned content. After it adopted the program, the Muleshoe Independent School District near Lubbock, TX saw double-digit increases in student proficiency rates.
A recent evaluation of a statewide program in Kentucky program found that targeted interventions for students plus collaboration among teachers yielded significant gains in K-3 math and other non-test outcomes including student attendance.
And yet, all of this is far from enough. According to the latest data from NWEA, the average student is 4.5 months behind where they should be in math. Those reflect averages, and disadvantaged students in the middle grades are particularly far behind.
Worse, the examples highlighted above simply aren’t providing enough students with enough additional learning time. For example, a recent study on summer programs in 9 districts found that the programs boosted math achievement at about the expected rate given the amount of instructional time participating students received, but the programs served too few participants and provided too little instructional time to meaningfully move the needle on the total learning loss students in those districts suffered.
Meanwhile, all of these programs are at risk in the coming years as one-time federal supports wind down.
The bottom line: It is possible for states and districts to boost math outcomes in demonstrable ways. The strategies outlined above are all good places to start. However, education leaders will need to be much more aggressive about monitoring the reach and impact of those investments if they’re going to truly get students back on track.