TEXAS VIEW: STAAR test scores show disaster brewing in Texas schools

THE POINT: Where are our state leaders?

Recently, the state issued the most detailed and alarming look at how far students fell during the pandemic, this year’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, results. Everyone knew it would be bad, but some of the results are breathtaking, especially in math: Just 30% of third-graders meet grade level requirements.

And the STAAR scores render an inescapable verdict on virtual learning: Districts with more students on screens at home tended to have worse scores, state education officials said.

In Fort Worth, the results are yet another sign of how tens of thousands of kids are just not learning what they should, especially after the pandemic. In grades 3 through 8, a smaller share of students were at grade level or close to it in math and reading than when tests were last administered in 2019. The Arlington school district saw similar declines in both subjects across grade levels.

It’s important to keep the scores in perspective. Yes, everyone knew virtual learning had significant flaws. And efforts are underway to address the loss of learning; Fort Worth ISD says it has triple the usual number of students in summer school. Much more tutoring is available, along with enrichment courses in reading offered throughout the community.

But the fact that learning loss was unavoidable seems to have led to a lack of urgency among state leaders, and that’s unacceptable. Gov. Greg Abbott issued no public statement and has offered little in the way of a vision for how schools can improve. Perhaps if a potential Republican primary challenger raises it, we’ll hear from the governor.

As for the Legislature’s regular session this year, school districts were pleased when state revenues proved more resilient than expected, killing any chance of big funding cuts. And lawmakers approved a bill that will help channel some resources to students who fail crucial STAAR tests. But the erosion of learning wasn’t a priority.

There’s growing acknowledgment that Fort Worth’s problems didn’t start there, and fixing the problems borne of a lost year will be only a start. It will take serious and sustained commitments from businesses, political leaders and the community to reverse years-long trends. Superintendent Kent Scribner needs to outline a robust plan for the next year and beyond to reverse the losses of the pandemic and get the district’s students, particularly the neediest, on a path to sustained improvement.

Between a recent tax-rate increase and a surge of federal money, resources shouldn’t be the issue. There’s new leadership on the school board, so a fresh look at plans to improve is in order. Tutoring and summer school are a start, but district leaders need to put forth a long-term plan and solicit buy-in from parents, business groups and community leaders.

It’s time, too, for tougher conversations about the role of parents and families. It’s staggering how many children simply disappeared during the pandemic, rarely if ever making contact with teachers or appearing for virtual instruction. We ask teachers to lift children out of their circumstances, but they’re not magicians.

Our schools are one of our chief instruments for battling poverty, distributing food, offering mental health services and performing other basic tasks only tangentially related to education. We need social pressure that emphasizes the importance of education and taking steps to ensure children are ready to learn. Schools can’t do it all.

The STAAR results reinforce some of the lessons of the pandemic. The most important is that shutting down schools is a step that must be taken only when absolutely necessary, and they must be reopened as soon as possible. When the coronavirus first arrived, there was no other sensible option. And if it should surge anew or another emergency should strike, that might again be the case.

But we know now that extended virtual schooling actively harms learning, and getting children back with teachers must be an urgent priority.

It’s also important, though, that children can maximize their learning at home. The pandemic revealed gaps in online access, especially in low-income areas and rural communities. The state has taken steps to address it, and locally, FWISD is expanding broadband, albeit slowly. This priority can’t slip; every Texas child must be able to tap into the digital world they’ll live in.

Test results aren’t everything. But these STAAR scores cannot be ignored. Texas schools are on the edge of a crisis, and all of us must play a part in addressing it.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram