Despite Improvements, Texas Students are Still Struggling with Math and Reading

Math scores are still below 2019 levels and about half of Texas students read below the level appropriate for most children in their grade.

This is a photo of a calculator and a test scantron on a desk.
A calculator and a test sheet on a desk at Elsik High School in Houston in 2018. (Pu Ying Huang/The Texas Tribune)

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Student scores in the state’s standardized test have continued to improve since the pandemic, but more than half of Texas students are still struggling with math and about a half of them are below grade-level reading, according to score data from this spring released Wednesday.

While overall math scores improved from last year after falling to their lowest levels in a decade, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. And while the percentage of students who can read at grade-level — the reading level appropriate to most students in their grade — is higher than before the pandemic, overall scores in this subject remained flat from last year. The state’s most vulnerable students still lag behind state averages in both subjects.

Each spring, Texas students in third through eighth grade take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test in math and reading. Fifth- and eighth-graders also take the STAAR test in science, eighth-graders take a social studies version of the test and high school students take some STAAR tests known as end-of-course assessments.

The scores released Wednesday are the first to come out since the STAAR test was redesigned to more closely resemble what students learn in a classroom setting. The new test did not appear to have a significant impact on student performance.

Forty-three percent of students taking math in third through eighth grade or Algebra I met grade level or above this year, a 3-percentage-point increase from the previous year. Fifty-two percent of students who took reading in third through eighth grade, English I or English II met grade level or above, which is the same percentage as the year before.

While the math scores represent an increase from last year, they are still 7 percentage points behind the state average in 2019, before the pandemic hit. Reading scores, on the other hand, have seen a 5-percentage-point increase since then.

“Teachers across Texas continue to work with passion and skill to help students learn,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said. “This year’s results show the efforts of our educators continue to deliver improved results for students.”

Test scores for the state’s most vulnerable students — such as special education students, bilingual students and low-income students — continue to lag behind state averages, but gains have been made in recent years. About 60% of Texas’ 5.5 million students are considered economically disadvantaged.

In math, only 33% of low-income students met or exceeded grade level, compared with the 60% of students who met grade level but are not considered low income. This year’s score for low-income students is a 3-percentage-point increase from last year but still 8-percentage-points lower than 2019 scores.

In reading, only 41% of low-income students met grade level, compared with the 71% of students who met grade level but are not considered low income. The 41% did not change from last year but is 5- percentage-points higher than 2019 scores.

The latest scores show that 33% of bilingual students met grade level, representing a 2-percentage-point increase from last year and a 10-percentage-point increase from 2019. In math, 32% of these students met grade level, a 3-percentage-point increase from last year but still 4-percentage-points lower from 2019 scores.

Meanwhile, 16% of special education students met grade level in math, a 3-percentage-point increase from last year but 1-percentage-point lower compared with 2019 levels. In reading, 17% of these students met grade level, the same as last year, but the figure is 5-percentage-points higher than 2019 scores.

Broken down by race and ethnicity, 58% of white students and 79% of Asian students were at grade level in math, but both groups are still behind pre-pandemic scores. Among Hispanic students, who make up more than half of Texas’ student population, 36% met grade level, 9-percentage-point lower than 2019 and a 2-percentage-point increase from last year. Only 28% of Black students, who make up about 13% of the state’s student population, met grade level, a 3-percentage-point increase from last year, but 7-percentage-points lower than 2019.

In reading, 68% of white students and 82% of Asian students met grade level, both representing increases from pre-pandemic scores. Forty-five percent of Hispanic students met grade level for the subject, the same as last year and 5-percentage-points higher than 2019. Forty-one percent of Black students met grade level, a 1-percentage-point increase from last year, but 7-percentage-points lower than 2019 scores.

Mary Lynn Pruneda, senior policy adviser for the public policy think tank Texas 2036, said the results show that students are continuing to recover from the learning disruption created by the pandemic, but noted that fewer students are reaching mastery-level performance, the top tier on the exam. In almost every grade level for both math and reading, the percentage of students who mastered either subject fell from last year and is still lagging compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Pruneda said the results show that past investments in schools to help with student performance are paying dividends but more is needed.

Over the last several years, the Texas Legislature has tried to move the needle with laws providing more tutoring for struggling kids, more preparation for educators on how to teach reading to kids and more high-quality teaching materials.

Schools have also received federal funds to aid learning recovery after the pandemic. And a special legislative session expected sometime this fall will provide another opportunity for lawmakers to pass laws that spur academic growth.

“The decisions and investments we make now will shape the opportunities that generations of students will have following graduation to pursue higher education or start a meaningful career,” Pruneda said.

Disclosure: Texas 2036 has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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