Fifth graders at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley during a reading exercise. Some students participated in the exercise at home. Sept. 4, 2020.

Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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The COVID-19 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, according to standardized test results released Monday by the Texas Education Agency.

In districts where fewer than a quarter of classes were held in person, the number of students who met math test expectations dropped by 32 percentage points, and the number of students who met reading expectations dropped by 9 percentage points compared to 2019, the last time the test was administered. In districts with more than three-quarters in-person instruction, the number of students meeting math expectations only dropped by 9 percentage points and those who met reading expectations by 1 percentage point. Students of color and lower-income students saw greater gaps as well, although those gaps were smaller than the one between remote and in-person instruction.

“The impact of the coronavirus on what school means and what school is has been truly profound,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told reporters Monday. “What we know now with certainty is that the decision in Texas to prioritize in person instruction was critical.”

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. Morath said those numbers allow for “fairly effective comparisons.” The STAAR assessment for math and reading is administered from grades 3 to 8.

Since 2012, test results in the state had been steadily improving, but after COVID-19 related disruptions, the percentage of students meeting reading expectations dropped back to 2016 rates and the percentage meeting math expectations dropped to 2013 passing rates. Math test performance saw the most significant drop, from 50% of students meeting their grade level in 2019 to only 35% this year.

Hispanic students in districts with over three-quarters of learning done remotely saw the largest drops compared to other demographics, with a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of students meeting reading expectations and a 34 percentage point decrease in those meeting math expectations. This is followed by Black students taking mostly remote classes, who saw a 6 percentage point decrease in those meeting reading expectations and a 28 percentage point in those meeting expectations for math.

Students who took the test in Spanish also saw “far more significant declines in rates of grade level” than those who took the test in English, Morath said.

“The data may be disheartening, but with it, our teachers and school leaders are building action plans to support students in the new school year,” he said. “Policymakers are using it to direct resources where they are needed most.”

He said parents can also sign in to TexasAssessment.gov to go over their children’s results and strategize how to catch them up.

There were outliers among the results, with some remote learners demonstrating progress and even some school districts containing a high concentration of remote learners with good outcomes. These outliers will be studied by a new commission on remote learning formed by the Texas Legislature.

While many districts expected remote learning to continue as an option moving into next year, a bill that would have funded it died during the final days of the Texas Legislature’s regular session. Some programs were canceled with thousands of students signed up, such as in Frisco, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Morath said on average, only 4% of students across all grades who are below grade level catch up within two years. But he pointed to the recently passed House Bill 4545 as an opportunity to help with catching students up. The bill requires school districts to offer tutoring to any student who doesn’t meet grade level expectations and to offer high-performing teachers.

He said the agency will also be offering “rigorous instructional materials, additional teachers support, help wherever appropriate to expand learning time, and targeted tutoring” this summer in an effort to close the gap.

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