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Math's steep summer slide: how far behind is your child?

Kids are losing math skills during the summer. Meanwhile, math standards are becoming more demanding. Here's how to keep your child from plunging down the math slide.

By Crystal Yednak

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Hello summer! Goodbye math?

Between pool time, T-ball, and tag, I’ve managed to work reading, word games, and story time into my kids' summer game plan. But every one of the academic activities I’ve snuck in has been reading-related. My kids and I rarely, OK never, play math games during long car rides or puzzle over tough math problems while lounging on the beach. My math-anemic family, it seems, is not alone. Researchers say on average kids lose 1.8 months of math skills during summer break.

The loss of math knowledge affects every kind of kid. “Whether you are a low-income child or a high-income child, you lose math knowledge or skills at the same rate over the summer,” says Catherine Augustine, senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation, which released a 2011 report on the summer learning slide. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why kids' math slide is so steep: reading is more naturally woven into a child’s daily life; math, no so much. “Even though we as adults use mathematics every day of our lives, I’m not sure kids do,” says Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Tasks like balancing the checkbook or price comparing while shopping are hardly part of a child's day-to-day life when school is out. A kid's math deficit during vacation is made worse because keeping math skills sharp takes more rigor and focus than simply picking up a book to pass a lazy summer day. Math, points out Augustine, requires a student to follow carefully a specific set of steps. Without a tutor, teacher, or parent reminding a student to do each step, most students have a tough time tackling math problems on their own.

Crystal Yednak is a mom of two and a freelance writer who writes about education and parenting topics for national and regional publications.