# To Close the Math Achievement Gap, We Must Recognize What Students Bring to the Classroom

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Picture the following: A student volunteers to answer a math question in an elementary school classroom. The teacher knows from working with the student previously that although she can easily follow the algorithmic steps of the math problem, she struggles with her reasoning and ability to make sense of the steps she is taking.

As she struggles to answer the question, two other students begin to whisper questions in her ear. Their questions help to create a situation that allows her to reflect on connections between the algorithmic steps she knows to solve the math problem and further her reasoning about why those steps work. Suddenly, after thinking about her classmates’ questions, she beams and proudly walks the class through her correct reasoning for the math problem.

In this situation, the teacher has made an effort to know each and every student, the math knowledge they bring to the lesson and how that knowledge can be used to advance learning more complex math. The teacher has also set up a classroom that nurtures curiosity and questioning that leads to learning.

As hopeful as this scenario sounds, mathematics is a struggle for many learners. Nationally, mathematics achievement on average remains low with glaring, persistent inequities across racial and ethnic groups. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2022, students in fourth and eighth grade had the largest decline in mathematics achievement since 1990. Furthermore, data shows that only 35 percent of fourth grade students were proficient in mathematics, dropping to 26 percent proficiency at the eight grade level. As a result, the achievement gap between white students and Black and Hispanic students has increased.

Many efforts to advance students’ mathematical achievements largely focus on fitting grade-level lessons to an entire class of students. Students are expected to get the mathematics by participating in the lesson activity; however, this approach ignores differences in how students leverage their own knowledge in each lesson to advance their learning.

To foster success in mathematics, we need to consider what students already know as a way to advance what they don’t yet know.

## Shifting Mathematical Thinking

Learning mathematics is a cognitive process grounded in a learner’s experience. The change from not knowing to learning a mathematical concept, also known as reorganization, occurs when a student uses their existing ideas and understanding as a way to develop more advanced ideas.