The Pandemic Has Undone Years of Educational Gains in Texas Schools. Here’s What the Road to Recovery Looks Like

Isabel Suarez works on homework at her home in Pflugerville on Dec. 9, 2020. (Jordan Vonderhaar / The Texas Tribune)

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Four days a week, Courtney races from her Houston home to pick up her fourth grade daughter from school. They come back home to grab a snack and then head back out to make it to the 9-year-old’s after-school tutoring session.

“We definitely want [children] to be caught up and to be at grade level because we all know that virtual learning was difficult on children,” the 33-year-old mom said, asking that her last name and her child’s name not be published because of recent conflicts between schools and school boards.

Like every Texas parent right now, Courtney is concerned about how much knowledge her child has lost because of pandemic-related school closures that forced educators to make an emergency pivot to online classes. It’s a switch that has been less than ideal for many students across the state and one that worries both educators and parents.

“My kid fell short in reading. I want her to be above grade level. I want her to excel,” Courtney said.

In Texas, state officials have looked at the results from the 2021 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test, to identify gaps in learning.

The results point to trouble ahead. The pandemic appeared to undo years of improvement for Texas students meeting grade requirements in reading and math, with students who did most of their schooling remotely suffering significant declines compared to those who attended in person. The STAAR test was optional last year due to coronavirus-related orders, but 87% of students still participated compared to 96% of students in 2019.

The results indicate to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath that the pandemic has undone years of learning and it could have a negative impact on the economy and a student’s lifetime income if that loss isn’t addressed.

In response, the 2021 Texas Legislature passed House Bill 4545, a measure that requires schools to offer students 30 hours of targeted instruction based on how many STAAR subjects a student failed.

Courtney’s daughter didn’t pass the reading portion of the 2021 STAAR exam, but she was an “A” student throughout virtual schooling. Now, her school is giving her the mandated extra tutoring during school hours on top of the private after-school tutoring she is providing her daughter.

“I want my child to get the best level of education. I just don’t believe that that bill can provide it,” she said.

She believes the bill is a great idea, but falters because it asks that tutoring sessions be held in a 3:1 ratio, but teacher shortages across the state make that difficult, she said.

Monica Esparza, a mother of a sixth grader with dyslexia who attends school in the Burleson Independent School District, south of Fort Worth, thinks the mandated extra tutoring adds more stress on children and it again puts too much pressure on children having to pass yet another assessment. But, at least for now, she is fine with her son taking those tutoring sessions because they will be given during the school day.

Her son, 11-year-old Israel Valdez, did not pass the math and reading portion of last spring’s STAAR exam, so he will now have half-hour tutoring sessions during the school day for both subjects. Even though Esparza is opposed to the STAAR test, she didn’t have her son opt out of it because she didn’t want him to think he could slack off.

Israel is a student who, for the most part, gets A’s and B’s, his mom said. But, he struggles to perform during the STAAR test because as a student with a learning disability he doesn’t receive the accommodations he usually gets during a regular school day.

In class, if Israel needs to read a lengthy story and then answer questions, he is able to have someone read the passage and the questions to him. When taking the STAAR test, he cannot have a person read a passage and the questions to him, making an already difficult task even harder because the test is a timed one.

From Esparza’s point of view, the test is hardly a reliable metric when it comes to measuring his gap in learning because he does not have all the tools he usually has in the classroom at his disposal.

“How do you expect him to pass if you don’t give him the help that he needs?” she said.

It’s not unusual for some students to forget some of what they’ve learned over summer breaks and winter vacation periods.

But what’s happening now is markedly different, experts say, because the pandemic took a toll not only on the way children learn, but it also disrupted their home lives entirely. And critics of the state’s extra tutoring law say it is unfair to identify “learning loss” in students through one test.

“In the middle of a pandemic, when people are stressed out, traumatized, upset, depressed, angry — how well are they performing on that kind of an assessment?” said Meghan Dougherty, an instructional coach for secondary social studies in the Round Rock Independent School District, north of Austin. “This idea that somehow we have to run even faster to catch up, right when our energy resources are already depleted, is demoralizing.”

What does learning loss look like?

The term “learning loss” describes the loss of knowledge and skills that students experience when they’re not in school. But educators don’t like the term. They say it implies that students are starting at a deficit and need to play catch-up instead of promoting gradual growth.

Morath uses the term when speaking about the pandemic’s effect on education. The spring 2021 STAAR results showed that 43% of all students met grade level in reading, down from 47% in 2019. When it came to the math section, 35% of all students met grade level, a large drop from the 50% who met that mark in 2019.

Currently, the TEA is using only the STAAR results to calculate how much the pandemic disrupted learning.

“There’s much debate over standardized testing,” Morath said on Nov. 3 during a press call. “But these things have been heavily validated and they’re reliable.”

Back in Houston, Courtney said she wanted her daughter to take it this year because as a parent she wanted some measure of how much impact the pandemic has had on her daughter’s education. Schools are still sorting out the dismal results of last year’s STAAR testing.

In Texas, many schools test students on their knowledge at the beginning of the school year to gauge whether students are at the correct grade level. These beginning-of-the-year assessments are something many schools are now relying on to get a better read on how students’ knowledge and skills eroded during the pandemic because taking the STAAR test this year was optional.

Still, the results from these assessments are not providing better news than the STAAR test. Using these assessments given at the start of the school year in September, about 62% of all San Antonio Independent School District students tested below average in math and about 49% tested below average in reading.

“We see this data as a charge that we need to make up more than a year’s worth of learning loss,” the district said in a statement. “While disheartening, we believe it is better to have this data, address it, and work together with parents to help our students overcome this temporary setback.”

In the Big Spring Independent School District south of Lubbock, Superintendent Jay McWilliams said that in a non-COVID school year, about 30% of students come back with some sort of learning gap. This school year, the district’s internal data shows that number has increased by about 15%.

“Teaching this year has been a real challenge,” he said.

State-mandated tutoring

Among educators, parents and state officials, HB 4545 — the measure that required schools to provide extra tutoring to those students who have fallen behind — hasn’t received a particularly warm reception. Some say it’s the best way to recover children that struggled over the pandemic while others feel like it’s just another burden put on schools.

On Nov. 3, Morath said school districts have some leeway as to how fast they can actually comply with the new tutoring law.

Districts must keep to a ratio of one teacher per three students for these tutoring sessions. But with pandemic-related staffing shortages meeting that ratio is proving a struggle for most school districts.

In El Paso, the school district is hiring temporary “high-impact” tutors with a rate of up to $50 an hour to meet the demands of the bill.

In Austin, science teacher Enrique Reyes said the district has been making preparations as they gear up to follow the law, but he feels that once again the state is asking teachers to do one more chore.

“It demands us to do more for each student that we’re not necessarily equipped to do, especially now with a teacher shortage,” Reyes said.

Even before the actual tutoring starts, Reyes said the workload has increased for Austin teachers who now have to collect a lot more data on each student and determine who actually falls under the law.

Erin Bown-Anderson, associate superintendent of academics for Austin Independent School District, said the tutoring law requires districts to document and communicate how the tutoring is being done.

“Those stipulations are challenging for campuses to navigate given all of the other needs of this particular year,” she said.

For all the schools’ efforts, Morath said the TEA isn’t closely monitoring which school districts are in compliance with the law.

“Right now we know that everyone is working quite hard to try to implement the law,” Morath said. “The concern we would have is if there’s willful noncompliance as opposed to just where they are in their implementation journey.”

Brian Lopez is an education reporter at The Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared Dec. 1 at TexasTribune.org.

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