Fort Worth and Dallas ISDs were dealt almost the same hand during the past year as administrators worked to ensure students were learning in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Their counties had identical COVID-19 restrictions. Both districts had more than half of students attending classes in person. They even have roughly the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students, about 85%. 

Results from this spring’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness showed more students in both districts not passing the math and reading tests, mirroring a statewide trend, according to Texas Education Agency data. But the two districts had vastly different decreases. 

Dallas ISD performed close to the statewide averages and on par with districts that have a significant portion of economically disadvantaged students and had at least half of students going to school this past year. 

Fort Worth ISD, though, performed worse than the pair of state averages and Dallas ISD — another setback for a district perceived to be underperforming. Some blame leadership. Others pin it on school culture. Through interviews with education experts and school administrators, two factors that contributed to Fort Worth ISD’s showing on the test appear to be the timing of academic interventions and the performance of at-risk students.

Fort Worth school leaders stress the biggest factor that affected scores was not unique to the district: Remote learning hampered students’ learning — a fact TEA recognized when STAAR results were released in late June.

“The situation created by the COVID pandemic and the number of students not learning in-person was the real contributing factor to performance in districts across the state and nationally, not just Fort Worth ISD,” Fort Worth ISD Chief Academic Officer Jerry Moore said. 

Timing matters

Fort Worth ISD monitors students’ growth through assessments by the Northwest Evaluation Association. The exams are administered three times a year — at the start, the middle and end of the year.

Last fall, Fort Worth ISD teachers were trying to figure out how to teach two sets of students, one in person and the other virtual, and meet all of their needs. Getting that right was the primary focus, Moore said.

“We didn’t know what students were going to look like after the shutdown in spring 2020,” the chief academic officer said.

Some interventions were in place following the first Northwest Evaluation Association test.

Despite the extra help, student growth stagnated — for some, they even regressed — on the mid-year exam administered in December. Interventions, such as those focused on elementary and middle school literacy, math tutoring and readjusting schedules, were put in place, Moore said.

“We quickly turned around and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to put something in place to turn this lack of growth around and to really have students progress in the spring semester,’” Moore said. “It was just the environment as a whole of doing something that entire education system never really had to do.”

Dallas ISD implemented similar ideas — but did so earlier than Fort Worth ISD and saw better STAAR results.

The Dallas district also monitors student progress with Northwest Evaluation Association tests. Dallas ISD, which has 145,113 students, is in its second year of using the test. That short timeframe means the district has not collected a huge amount of data. But the information it had showed dramatic declines.

Dallas administrators started to intervene after the beginning-of-year test.

“When we looked at where students typically would be at the start of a school year and where we saw kids at the start of this past school year, there was an enormous discrepancy,” Dallas ISD Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said. “It really became all hands on deck.”

Administrators targeted schools that had the lowest performance on the STAAR tests, as well as campuses that had large drops.

At schools across Dallas ISD, every adult on campus took on some sort of teaching role by leading small groups of students during what was called an intervention block. Children received more personalized time to help them with their work and drill down into their problem areas.

“It was not just everybody in a class working on the same thing, but lots of small little classes with everybody — the gym teacher, the reading specialist, the classroom teacher, classroom aides — working with small groups to support kids with the specific areas of need that they had,” Cordova said.

Outside of the classroom, Dallas ISD also started to broadcast internet to children at home in neighborhoods with large populations of economically disadvantaged students. The district started building towers in November and had students access the web at home within the first two months of this year. Fort Worth ISD also has a targeted wireless internet plan that is expected to start connecting students in certain neighborhoods to the internet when school restarts Aug. 16.

At-risk students underperformed

Students at risk of dropping out needed to learn in-person, Moore said. They experienced significant declines across the board. 

Students are considered at risk if they meet one of 14 criteria outlined in state law. It includes students who have previously underperformed on STAAR tests; not advanced grade levels for one or more years; have not maintained at least a 70 in two or more basic subjects; and have limited English proficiency.

More students are considered at risk of dropping out in Fort Worth ISD than in Dallas ISD. Nearly 71% of the 76,858 enrolled students in Fort Worth ISD are considered at risk, according to TEA. That figure is about 62% in Dallas ISD.

“The at-risk population in every school district was having difficulties with the pandemic and with virtual instruction,” the chief academic officer said.

At-risk students tend to benefit more from in-person interaction with their peers and direct instruction from their teachers, Moore said. The Northwest Evaluation Association assessments showed Fort Worth ISD administrators that this group was not as prepared for STAAR as they were in the past.

On the third-grade math STAAR, 66% of at-risk Fort Worth ISD students did not meet standards. Two years ago, only 36% did not pass the test. 

Dallas ISD saw more at-risk third graders not pass the math exam; however, it managed to keep the increases down to a minimum. In 2019, 23% failed to meet grade level on the test. That figure grew by 17 percentage points to 40%.

“If a student was already historically struggling, it’s really not surprising that in the last year and a half that was sometimes chaotic and sometimes just unpredictable that they are still continuing to struggle,” said Jo Beth Jimerson, associate professor of educational leadership at Texas Christian University’s College of Education.

Students at Alice D. Contreras Elementary show off the rockets they built. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Many at-risk students likely had more pressing concerns — such as needing a place to stay, taking care of family or helping make ends meet — than worrying about a state standardized test that would not affect their academic careers. On top of that, many of these children likely did not have access to the internet and could not participate in remote learning.

“If a student is starting a hundred yards ahead of another, chances are at the end of that race that student is still going to be ahead,” Jimerson said. “For most people, starting the race behind adds a burden. In the last two years, we’ve had an inordinate amount of burdens across society with COVID and parents in the workplace and childcare and a lot of different factors, so it really has compounded that challenge for learning.”

At-risk students can make a comeback through proper support and in-person instruction, Jimerson and Moore said.

Pre-pandemic data trending in ‘right direction’

Fort Worth ISD ratings

Since 2018, the Texas Education Agency has rated school districts on an A to F scale. The accountability rating system is based on three areas — student achievement, school progress and closing the gaps — and districts earn up to 100 points. The state also issued a “what if” grade in 2017 to prepare districts for the rollout of the ratings system.

2017: D, 67 out 100

2018: C, 75 out of 100

2019: C, 79 out of 100

2020 and 2021: Districts and schools did not receive a rating because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2022: The accountability rating system will likely resume next year and will be based on students’ performance on the spring 2022 STAAR tests

Fort Worth ISD administrators contend the public likely would have seen a better accountability rating from the district in 2020 if it weren’t for the coronavirus crisis. TEA paused the rating system because of the pandemic. 

Northwest Evaluation Association test data from the 2019-20 school year showed improvements across all grade levels and demographics, Moore said.

For example, 63% of third-graders were meeting the end-of-year standard on the Northwest Evaluation Association assessment. Third-graders also took a benchmark reading STAAR test that showed a four-point increase in the number of students who met their grade level.

In math, the district said more students in first through third grade met or exceeded their growth projections on the Northwest Evaluation Association test from fall 2019 to January 2020. All demographic groups showed gains in the number of students who met grade level and approached grade level in third through fifth grade on the STAAR benchmark.

“I personally don’t think there was anyone in the state of Texas more disappointed that we didn’t have the 2020 STAAR than myself,” Moore said. “Our data really was telling us we were trending in the right direction.”

Then everything changed.

‘It’s very hard work’

Turning a district around doesn’t require new innovative solutions, according to a nationally recognized expert in school transformation. 

William Robinson is the executive director of Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia. He says systemic change — rather than dozens of different school-level initiatives — is needed to build a better school district. That change can come about through bread-and-butter solutions, such as investing in instructional resources and support to grow school leadership teams.

Of course, the pandemic has changed part of fixing that problem.

“Students are going to arrive in Fort Worth (ISD) with even a wider disparity of needs than ever before as a result of the pandemic, so it comes down to how do you respond to that?” Robinson said. “If you respond to that through more remediation in tutoring and efforts just to try to repeat what students missed, we have reams of evidence to suggest that’s not going to work, and you will always be playing catch up.”

Instead, Robinson sees this year as an opportunity for districts to double down on what has always worked: Accelerate learning by ensuring all students receive high-quality instruction that can be scaled.

“It’s very hard work, but how are we supporting our teachers and schools to establish structure so that all students are receiving high-quality, grade-level first-time instruction and in scaffolding that with extra support to the students who are further behind?” Robinson said.

Some of the strategies Robinson described are either in place or will be when Fort Worth ISD students return to school. They won’t be a silver bullet, he warned. 

Students at the summer school program build rockets out of paper, tape and vinyl pipe. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

“You can’t turn a gigantic ship around in a short amount of time,” Robinson said. “What you can do is you can make strategic bets on here’s where we’re going to improve across the system — and not just have these bold declaration of what’s going to improve — but back up the couple of places you’re going to focus on with strong supports to leaders and teachers to helping them achieve those goals.”

Seeing modest improvements in reading and math are not unreasonable goals, according to the school transformation expert. What would be an irresponsible goal is to suggest, for example, doubling the number of students scoring at-grade level on a reading test in a year. A goal like that is possible after a longer period of time.

“There’s no reason that a school system and schools can’t see material student achievement gains in both math and literacy within a year,” Robinson said. “Now it takes at least three to five years for change to stick.”

Intervention continues in 2021-22 school year

Fort Worth ISD could look to Dallas ISD for some ways to make meaningful change.

“We know that the conversation we have after the state assessment next year will be very different than the one that’s happening.”

Jerry Moore, Fort Worth ISD chief academic officer

One way Dallas ISD plans to improve its student achievement next year is to roll out extended calendars to 46 schools. Most of the schools will use an intersession calendar in which the year starts earlier and some students will periodically have a break while others have access to additional learning time.

The longer school year for those campuses is expected to cost $100 million.

Cordova, the Dallas ISD deputy superintendent, expects more time in the classroom will make a difference for students. Not only that, the extended calendar will act as an equalizer between students who come from families that can afford additional learning opportunities, such as camps, and those children whose only way to learn is through the public school system. Tutoring will tie into the new calendar, too.

“Part of what we want to do is we want to make sure that as we’re (going) along the calendar year, that we’re doing it in a way that really truly enriches the learning experience that affords students the opportunity to engage in some of those activities that are passion project activities,” Cordova said. “The longer school year is both motivational for kids and gives us the time that we know is going to be so critical for the learning loss.” 

The district also plans to hone in on preparing teachers. Administrators believe the classroom is where student performance will first begin to turn around and teachers need better training

“We really want to be focused on how we support teachers from their classrooms to provide the supports that we know are so critical for our students,” the deputy superintendent said. “It’s making sure teachers have access to top quality resources, making sure they have support through coaching, making sure that we’re using real time data to help create those small groups that will help kids.”

For future school years, Fort Worth ISD is considering new calendars. Besides that, the district plans to offer a myriad of programs to students when school resumes this month. That includes more after school programs; before and after school tutoring; expanding elementary and middle school literacy intervention; additional reading materials for bilingual and second language learners; and targeting certain campuses with better literacy curricular resources.

The Summer Launch program focuses on teaching kids about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Additionally, many aspects of Fort Worth ISD’s summer school program — such as an emphasis on social and emotional learning — will continue when the 2021-22 academic year starts later this month. 

The new endeavors will be funded through $260 million in federal stimulus dollars that the district will receive over the next three years.

“We’ll continue to do our progress monitoring throughout the year. We will know the areas that our students are performing well. We will know the areas that we need to intervene,” Moore said. “We know that the conversation we have after the state assessment next year will be very different than the one that’s happening.”

What Fort Worth ISD should avoid is make changes solely based on the STAAR exams, Jimerson, the TCU education professor, said. Districts need to use multiple tests, such as the Northwest Evaluation Association’s, to monitor progress and growth, she said. 

Jimerson considers the STAAR results to be flawed. She pointed to the statewide glitches during the tests’ administration, as well as students having to leave a testing site and return the next day as issues that could have affected the results. That data could tell an accurate story, but there were too many inconsistencies, she said.

“One thing that I talk with leaders and even my students about is you should never make any kind of big decision on one data point,” Jimerson said. “To draw any conclusions about trends from any data point you have to have some consistency in the measurement. And this year was not a year for consistency.”

‘Deliver what students need’

Students in the Summer Launch program cover their ears as a teacher launches their rockets in the air. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Showing residents it can improve student achievement will be a tough task for Fort Worth ISD. 

The 2021-22 school year will mark the return of high-stakes testing and the state’s A-to-F accountability rating system. In 2019, the last time the state doled out letter grades, Fort Worth ISD earned 79 out of 100 points — or a C rating.

“We have to figure out a new starting point font where every child is this August, and then move forward from that point,” Jimerson said. “Not all the gaps, if (students) had gaps, that opened up might be closed in one year, but you create a trajectory, and you track those data to see how are we doing from August to October, from October to December.”

New year, same virus

Fort Worth ISD students return to school Aug. 16, and learning will all be done on campus. Virtual learning is not an option. Here’s a look at the district’s health protocols:

  • Students and families should conduct daily health screenings at home before going to campus.
  • Campuses will be cleaned every day.
  • Encourage good hand hygiene.
  • Encourage mask wearing for anyone who wants to wear one. School districts cannot require anyone to wear a mask.
  • Observing social distancing when possible.
  • Last year’s infection reporting protocol will remain.
  • Monitor infection rates in schools and communicate with Tarrant County Public Health and the Texas Education Agency.

Groups, such as Focus on Students, have popped up in recent years to highlight what they view as the district’s academic decline. More parents have started showing up at school board meetings to voice their concerns about the district’s performance. The spring STAAR results have only exacerbated that. The school board even plans to hone its focus on student outcomes and have tighter accountability for Superintendent Kent Scribner. 

This political reality is not lost on administrators, who are betting the resumption of 100% in-person school and new interventions will help Fort Worth ISD bounce back from the pandemic. 

“We now have an opportunity to respond to these data with initiatives and solutions to accelerate student learning to regain and surpass pre-pandemic levels of learning,” Scribner said in a June 28 statement responding to STAAR results.

However, COVID-19 — and its variants — will still be an issue because children younger than 12 cannot be vaccinated and school districts have limited options to deal with a potential outbreak. 

To begin to improve student outcomes, Fort Worth ISD will have to do some self reflection and create a better learning environment, according to the education expert from the University of Virginia. The district has certainly recognized student performance isn’t where it should be. 

“Too often we blame teachers, students, parents or principals in the communities that are struggling. We need to create conditions where people want to work in those schools where our great talent is in those schools where we’re building the capacity of those leaders and those teachers to deliver what students need,” Robinson said. “The district has to take ownership over the root cause of schools’ challenges and identify what systemic shifts it’s going to make to ensure that the conditions where schools can thrive are in place.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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