Texas Children Still Struggle in Math Post-Pandemic, Schools Try New Approaches

Policy experts worry students will fall short of the state's future workforce needs. Educators hope the new curriculum will help them.

Third grade teacher Eran McGowan works through math problems with his students at the Eddie Bernice Johnson STEM Academy in Dallas on Feb. 5. (Azul Sordo/The Texas Tribune

DALLAS — In Eran McGowan’s math class, students try to teach each other.

If a student is brave enough to share how they solved a math problem, they stand up in front of the other third graders and say, “All eyes on me.” The classroom responds, “All eyes on you,” and the student explains how they did it.

This collaborative method of learning math is part of a new curriculum, named Eureka Math, that was launched in the Dallas Independent School District this school year. It emphasizes helping students better grasp mathematical concepts instead of their performance on the state’s standardized test. The new curriculum is described as a step away from memorization.

The new curriculum “moves away from using tests as a way to measure success,” said McGowan, who teaches at the Eddie Bernice Johnson STEM Academy. “It’s more focused on the kids understanding the concept, and in turn, that will help a child pass assessments.”

While the teaching approach is different, the intent ultimately continues to be helping students do better on the math portion of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Last summer’s results showed that Texas students have still not caught up to the math scores they had in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Forty-five percent of students who took math in third through eighth grade or Algebra I last year passed the STAAR test. While their math scores represent a slight increase from last year, they are still 7 percentage points behind the state average in 2019.

What’s more, the number of students who went above and beyond and “mastered” the subject has not recovered since the pandemic. In 2023, 19% of all Texas students mastered math at their grade level, down from 26% in 2019. While Texas students’ overall math scores last year were four points higher than the national average, the percentage of students who master math in the state is significantly behind the national average of 38%, according to the Nation’s Report Card, which samples fourth- and eighth-grade students’ reading and math grades across the country.

Policymakers and educators worry that the low number of students who master math will mean not enough Texans will have the skills to meet the demands of the most lucrative, in-demand jobs in the next few decades. They fear Texas will not be able to produce its own workforce and will be forced to look for talent elsewhere. According to a Stanford University study, students who do not bring their math scores back up to pre-pandemic levels will earn 5.6% less over the course of their lives than students with better grades just before the pandemic hit.

“Is our inability to get kids back towards this increased level of mastery — for math — going to limit them in the long run for the types of jobs that you’re going to be able to access, or even feel like they can access, in the future?” said Gabe Grantham, a K-12 policy analyst at Texas 2036, a public policy think tank. “If we don’t do anything about this at the state level in 2025, we’re going to be behind the ball.”

Texas won’t know how well Eureka Math is working until later in the year, when the next STAAR results are released, but there is optimism. About 400 other Texas school districts, both private and public, are using the curriculum. Across the country, districts that have adopted the curriculum have seen scores improve. Dallas ISD piloted the program at Anson Jones Elementary before adopting it districtwide and found that students’ math scores and confidence in their handling of the subject went up.

The Texas Legislature has also taken steps to make it easier for students to advance in their math studies. Lawmakers last year passed Senate Bill 2124, which automatically promotes middle schoolers to a higher math class if they do well at a lower level.

The law’s author, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said having students perform at a high level in math will increase their lifetime earnings and contribute to a healthy Texas economy. Lawmakers, policy analysts and public education officials are looking for other ways to help students bring up their math scores ahead of the 2025 legislative session, he said.

Grantham said Texas is behind other states when it comes to math reform at the legislative level, but it’s better to design policies based on data and a careful review of what’s working and what’s not.

“We don’t want to throw things at the wall and see what sticks,” he said. “Everyone wants the same silver bullet, but we’re trying to parse out what that actually looks like.”

For now, Texas is betting on laws passed over the last couple of years to help struggling students, such as mandated tutoring and, more recently, a law that makes it easier for teachers and districts to have access to “high-quality” instructional materials. Texas education experts and school administrators believe both policies are promising, though they say staffing shortages have made it difficult to comply with mandatory tutoring.

Teaching challenges

When the pandemic forced Texas schools to close and shift to virtual learning, STAAR scores plummeted to lows not seen in a decade.

Schools and families weren’t ready for the change. Some children didn’t have internet access or computers at home; others were completely absent. Academic achievement in both reading and math took a hit.

Four years later, reading scores have surpassed pre-pandemic levels but students are still struggling with math.

“The pandemic was just such a large-scale interruption, one that our system didn’t really know how to engage with,” said Carlos Nicolas Gómez, an assistant professor of STEM Education at UT-Austin. “And due to that, even coming back, we’re still dealing with the interruption.”

Gómez and Grantham said the reason why students have recovered faster in reading is because they can practice it at home much easier than math.

“Reading, it’s a lot easier for parents to read to their kids at home,” Grantham said. “Math is going to take a lot more direct instruction. That was just lost when kids were out of school.”

When kids came back to the classroom, many didn’t have a grasp of mathematical concepts they should’ve learned in previous years, said Umoja Turner, principal of the Eddie Bernice Johnson STEM Academy.

It fell on teachers to come up with learning plans that incorporated the concepts students are supposed to learn at each grade level, plus fill out the gaps in learning caused by the pandemic.

But Michelle Rinehart, superintendent of the Alpine Independent School District, said the state’s teacher shortage crisis and the departure of experienced teachers from schools have made it difficult to help students catch up. Only two out of her seven math teachers in grades 3-8 have taught math before, she said.

Experienced teachers lead to increased student achievement, according to the Learning Policy Institute, an education policy think tank. But during the last school year, 28% of new teachers hired in Texas did not have a certification or permit to teach, and 13% of all teachers left the profession. Both figures represented historic highs.

“That is a really high challenge right now,” Rinehart said.

The teaching shortage is especially hard for rural districts compared to their urban counterparts. For starters, Rinehart said, small districts like Alpine can’t pay teachers as much and usually have far fewer resources.

A new way to learn

Before Eureka Math was introduced in Dallas and Alpine ISDs, teachers could use a variety of different curricula, mostly geared toward passing the STAAR and memorizing how to solve equations.

This led to differences in how students across the state learned math. Turner said this sometimes causes students who move to a different campus to struggle when adapting to a new teaching method.

With Eureka Math now being widely adopted across Dallas ISD, students have a more consistent way of learning math, which hopefully will result in better test scores, he said.

McGowan said the curriculum he used in the past heavily emphasized passing the STAAR.

“With previous curriculums, it was just, ‘we have an equation, we solve it,’ but the kids cannot explain the process well,” he said.

Brittany duPont with Great Minds, the company that designed Eureka Math, has been helping Dallas teachers adopt the new curriculum. She said it’s been a huge shift in math teaching, and some veteran teachers have pushed back.

But duPont said the teaching tactics that Eureka Math proposes are needed to help kids catch up with their math studies after the pandemic. They’re also timely because the recently redesigned STAAR test now focuses more on how a child solves a math problem, she added.

Kids are more excited to learn and master concepts with Eureka Math, McGowan said. Another upside of the new curriculum is that it gives teachers room to test kids’ knowledge on a topic before each lesson, making it easier for teachers to collaborate on ways to help students catch up, he said.

The new curriculum also emphasizes collaboration. McGowan lets his students debate concepts with each other and figure out how they got to certain conclusions. The process allows them to gain a deeper understanding of mathematics.

Moving to a new curriculum always poses a bit of a risk and challenge, especially when it’s easier to stick to what you know, but McGowan said he’s seen kids enjoy learning math in a way he never has in his 18-year career.

“It’s about trusting the process. Trusting that the kids will learn,” he said. “But we have to be consistent.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/12/texas-schools-math-scores/.

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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