TEXAS VIEW: STAAR shocker: How Texas students beat learning loss and overperformed

THE POINT: Texas students are catching up.

Texans got good news about schools last Friday. In many cases, students have already recovered learning lost during the pandemic. The lesson behind the lessons is that resources matter; political will matters; and that the state Legislature acted properly and promptly to address a crucial problem.

The Texas Education Agency announced scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) for the 2021-22 school year. They are surprisingly good.

  • 52% of students in grades 3 through 8 are reading on grade level, an improvement of 9 percentage points over last year which brings the 2022 scores higher than the pre-pandemic level of 47%.
  • Among economically disadvantaged students, 41% are reading on grade level, an increase of 10% over last year and above the 2019 rate of 36%.
  • Reading scores among emergent bilingual students (those who don’t speak English at home) rose markedly: 31% were proficient this year, up from 20% last year and 22% in 2019.
  • Math scores improved too, though not to pre-pandemic levels. The share of students who met proficiency standards in math was 50% in 2019, 35% in 2021, and 40% in 2022. In short, scores rose across all ethnicities and all socioeconomic categories in all subjects.

“It would appear we have fully recovered in reading proficiency compared to prior-to-pandemic status,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told us in a preview of these numbers, saying he is “pleasantly surprised.”

So are we. Let’s not forget the context here. It wasn’t that long ago that we were hearing educators talk about a “lost generation” of students and the very real possibility that it would take five or 10 years to erase the “COVID slide.” That wasn’t hyperbole. Taking students out of classrooms for extended periods of time — more than a year in some districts — was bound to have negative effects. Scores reflected that. After canceling the STAAR in 2020, Texas public schools showed declines from 2019 in just about every category. Some of them, like the drop 15-percentage-point drop in math, were cause for alarm.

Best we can tell, the reason today’s news is so positive is that educators, bureaucrats and politicians all leaned in and provided the tools, coordination and funding to meet the problem head-on. Morath pointed to two pieces of legislation — HB 4545 and HB 1525 — which provided tutoring, curricula, teacher support, reading academies and other programs to help students catch up. The results are clear. The share of students who failed STAAR in 2018 but caught up in 2019 was 32%. The share that caught up between 2021 and 2022 was 45%.

Dallas ISD tracks with those trends. According to a report from Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa last month, the percentage of DISD eighth graders who “mastered” reading rose 13 points over 2021, and was significantly higher than in 2019. Reading in grades three through seven also improved. Black students made the most impressive gains. The percentage of Black fourth graders who mastered on-level reading was up a whopping 17 points.

Of course, none of this means educators can coast. It’s still a critical moment for schools. Districts across the state must keep accelerating learning.

“This will still be a multiyear recovery effort,” Morath said. “We have a lot of work that remains.”

And scores needed help even before the pandemic. Only half of students reading on grade level, though an improvement, is still far too few.

One helpful resource is a full STAAR report for each student available via unique access code at texasassessment.gov. There, parents can see their student’s scores, which questions he or she missed, and even an explanation about how to arrive at the right answer. That kind of parent empowerment can go a long way.

Parents, teachers and administrators deserve to celebrate this news. They have faced formidable challenges the past two years.

State leaders deserve some credit, too. According to the Legislative Budget Board, the combined cost of HB 4545 and HB 1525 will be $703 million this biennium, although Morath said tutoring costs are turning out to be lower than projected. Still, that’s a big price tag for a state government that is focused on limiting government spending.

Today’s good news isn’t an accident. It’s what can happen when powerful stakeholders pull together to care for kids. That’s a headline we’d like to write more often.

The Dallas Morning News