Student Achievement What the Research Says

Students Are Regaining Academic Ground—Except in Math

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 14, 2023 3 min read
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Students have started to ramp up academic progress in core subjects like reading, science, and social studies—but not math.

Public schools report that 44 percent of their students perform below grade level in at least one subject, according to the latest federal School Pulse Survey, which was conducted in October. That’s down 5 percentage points from last fall, but still higher than the 36 percent share of struggling students that was typical before the pandemic.

However, 56 percent of students at high-poverty schools and 59 percent of students at schools serving the highest shares of students of color started the school year below grade level in at least one subject.

Nearly all schools reported students performing below grade level in math and reading. But slightly more students read on grade level starting this school year versus last, while there was no significant improvement in math.

Those reports from principals mirror the results of recent international assessments, which show U.S. 15-year-olds mostly holding steady in reading and science, while dropping precipitously in math.

Schools also reported more teacher vacancies in math this fall than in any other individual subject area. Six percent of schools reported at least one unfilled math post, and 4 percent said they needed multiple math teachers. The only positions more sought-after were special education and general elementary teachers.

Sixty-three percent of schools overall reported they are fully staffed for all teachers, up from 56 percent last year. High-poverty and secondary schools overall continue to have teacher shortages that are similar in severity to last year’s. Four in 10 principals said that teacher shortages have forced them to use teachers for assignments outside of their normal duties, while more than a quarter said they have increased class sizes to cope with the lack of instructors.

Overall, 49 percent of high-poverty schools also reported shortages in nonteaching staff, such as instructional aides, this October. That’s up 10 percentage points from the start of the 2022-23 school year. By contrast, staff shortages have declined in higher-income and suburban schools.

The School Pulse panel results are based on a representative sample of more than 1,400 public schools nationwide. NCES and the Census Bureau started the survey in 2020 to track school operations during the pandemic. For this most recent survey round, NCES also polled a representative sample of 99 public K-12 principals in U.S. territories in outlying areas such as American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands. These principals said more than half of their students started the school year behind in one or more core subjects.

High-dose tutoring holding ground

As federal pandemic recovery aid winds down this year, fewer schools reported offering tutoring this fall. But principals are more likely to keep the intensive tutoring that research suggests is most effective, and to cut less-intensive or self-paced tutoring.

To be considered high-dosage tutoring, students must meet with a trained tutor or teacher individually or in groups of three or fewer students, during the school day, for at least 30-minute sessions four or five times a week. Fifty-seven percent of principals with high-dosage tutoring held sessions four or five times a week in 2023-24, compared to only 25 percent of schools with standard tutoring programs.

But schools were also more likely to offer intensive tutoring in reading than in other subjects. High-dosage tutoring in math, for example, was 12 percentage points less common than similar tutoring in reading.

Nearly 4 in 10 principals said they found their high-dosage tutoring programs very or extremely effective, compared to only 2 in 10 principals with standard tutoring programs. While federal funding has fallen off for all kinds of tutoring, more principals said they were using state grants or local school and district budgets to pay for high-dosage tutoring.

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