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Texas students’ STAAR reading results rebound after COVID, math still lags

Education officials point to tutoring as key strategy to accelerate learning

Texas students’ reading passing rates on STAAR have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels after COVID-19 triggered major losses, but their academic achievement in math still lags.

State officials say the preliminary STAAR results for elementary and middle school students released Friday offer hope, along with a clarion call to continue helping all children catch up.

“The picture is very strong in reading, and the news is good in math, but we still have a lot of work to do to recover from the impacts of the pandemic in terms of student mathematical knowledge and skills,” education commissioner Mike Morath said.

Across the state, 52% of students met grade-level expectations in elementary and middle school reading exams as well as in English I and II, an improvement of nine percentage points over the previous year.

Morath pointed to state-mandated tutoring for students who failed State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams last year as one of the reasons for the growth.

The Legislature passed a law in 2021 that essentially required 30 hours of extra instruction in subjects where a student failed STAAR. While many school leaders said it was a difficult and hefty burden to meet, especially as they faced staffing shortages, Morath said the work paid off for those able to carry out the mandate.

“You think about the tutoring work that is happening in particular, and it is having broad-based effects,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, Texas leaders were making a concerted push to improve reading as the state lagged behind most states on nationwide reading assessments over the last decade. The state required certain educators to attend Reading Academies and study the science behind how students learn to decode language.

Morath said he believes that effort contributed to the growth.

Notably, the percentage of students meeting grade level on reading tests surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

The percentage of elementary and middle school students passing their reading exams was higher than the 2019 rate in all but one grade level. And the percentage of top-performing students who “mastered” the content exceeded pre-pandemic levels in third through eighth grade.

But the math results were less promising.

Only 40% of students in grades third through eighth grade — along with those who took Algebra I — met grade-level standards in math. That’s down from prior to the pandemic when half of all students reached that standard. Still, it represented a five-point increase over last year’s tests.

Morath noted this was the largest single-year jump in math progress in a decade.

Even though all elementary and middle school passing rates grew from last year’s results, none met or exceeded pre-pandemic levels in the subject. Notably, students in seventh grade math continued to struggle most, with roughly 40% of students failing that exam.

At least one-quarter of students failed the math exam across all elementary and middle grade levels.

The percentage of elementary and middle schoolers excelling in math mostly increased over last year but also did not match levels reached in 2019.

Morath said it is likely the Legislature considers investing in bolstering math education at the same level as reading in the upcoming session.

“We have to be sensitive to how many different things get prioritized just because it’s a large, complex system and you can’t do everything at once,” he said. “But similar-scaled investments in mathematics would likely bear real fruit for us.”

Students fell behind more significantly in math because at-home instruction on math concepts can be more challenging than that for reading, experts have said.

Virtual learning also made it more difficult for teachers to diagnose their students’ understanding of math, which they could normally analyze by checking students’ work.

“Having a conceptual understanding in math is very important,” said Annie Wilhelm, a Southern Methodist University associate professor of math education. “Students missed opportunities to build foundational knowledge, and its hard to accelerate that. They’re going to need more time and focused instruction on the big ideas.”

SMU supports the Education Lab at The Dallas Morning News.

While last year’s participation in the STAAR exam was a “little light” with just 87% of students sitting for the exams, this year’s rates rebounded with 98% of eligible students taking the STAAR, Morath said. Most took the exam online as part of a required push for entirely virtual testing in coming years.

Not all states have released their assessment data yet, so it’s unclear how Texas stacks up nationwide in its academic recovery. State leaders plan to study how Texas’ results compare with others’ when more data is available, Morath said.

Texas’ 2022 results are still preliminary and could be adjusted in mid-July once school districts have the opportunity to make corrections, agency officials noted.

Gaps remain

Meanwhile, gaps remain for more the state’s vulnerable children.

The percentage of students learning English meeting grade level lagged behind peers on reading exams, but rates grew from 20% to 31%. Their math exam rate improved from 20% to 29%.

Students receiving special education services showed more modest improvements. The rate of those meeting grade level on reading exams increased from 12% to 17% and in math from 12% to 13%.

Low-income students also saw progress — the percentage meeting grade level in reading improved from 31% to 41% and in math from 23% to 30%. More affluent students had much higher achievement rates with 55% meeting grade level on math exams and 67% meeting the standard on reading tests.

Persistent gaps among the achievement of students from different racial groups remained, but all showed similar growth patterns over the last school year.

In Dallas ISD, trustees reviewed preliminary data last month that showed progress in closing racial gaps. And similarly to the state as a whole, Dallas students made “significant gains” in reading but remained behind in math.

“These are pretty amazing and shocking results — in a good way,” Dallas trustee Dustin Marshall said. “A year ago, I would’ve wagered heavily that you guys weren’t going to see these large gains,” especially the ones that showed students getting back to pre-pandemic levels.

“This is the most encouraging data I’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

Pandemic’s impact

STAAR results from 2021 — the first exam given during the pandemic — provided an in-depth look into the havoc COVID-19′s learning disruptions wreaked on students.

Nearly four out of every 10 public school students failed state math exams in 2021, and about one-third of students didn’t pass their reading tests — an increase of 16% and 4%, respectively, in failure rates for both subjects over the last year of scores in 2019.

Students still learning from home last year, away from their teachers and classmates, had poorer academic performance than peers, officials said then. That brought down overall rates for the state.

Most Texas students have been learning in person over the past academic year, and school leaders have tacked on additional instruction time with other strategies to accelerate learning. School districts used billions in federal pandemic aid to extend the school year, provide summer learning and offer tutoring to struggling students.

While Morath pointed to the required tutoring for students who failed previous STAAR tests as a reason for improvement, educator groups underscored the additional stress the mandate puts on teachers.

“There’s no dispute that tutoring and individualized instruction definitely work,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “The question is: Do we have an infrastructure that makes that modality readily accessible in a widespread way?”

Educators and students have worked hard over the last year to make up gaps, but it isn’t sustainable in the long run, Exter said. More resources, including tutors, time and additional compensation, are needed to maintain the acceleration efforts over time.

Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed concerns that the mandated tutoring law unduly burdened schools and educators. Recent legislative hearings showed lawmakers are willing to revisit portions of the legislation, he said.

The state has not yet studied which of the many learning recovery strategies employed by districts have been most effective but plan to do so later this year, Morath noted.

Gov. Greg Abbott canceled the STAAR exam in 2020, resulting in a year of missing assessment data. Schools have not received letter grades, which are largely based on state exam scores, since 2019.

Texas AFT was one of the groups calling for the STAAR’s cancellation during the pandemic. The group continues to believe the exam is “ineffective at measuring student growth and assisting educators even in times without pandemic disruptions,” Capo said.

In August, the state will award schools and districts letter grades if they scored a C or higher. Schools that would receive a D or F will receive a “not rated,” although their numeric scores will still be public.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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