Educator Thomas Mayfield donned a skull and crossbones hat and eyepatch. 

He walked into a classroom at J.T. Stevens Elementary School in Fort Worth ISD. He let out a loud “Arrr!” to the students. This day’s math lesson was about addition, and Mayfield wanted to make it fun for the class. 

This scene happened early in the 2021-22 school year. Academic achievement, especially in math, was lower than it had been in recent years. Mayfield, an instructional coach, knew he had to make math fun so students could actually understand the concepts in their lessons. 

That focus on educators and giving them the flexibility and opportunity to break out of teaching to a test appears to have paid off for Fort Worth ISD. Results from the exam, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, showed students making gains in reading and math — mirroring statewide and national trends. Effectively, student outcomes in the district are back at levels not seen since 2019, the last non-pandemic year of education.

Reading scores are back to pre-pandemic levels. Students, however, remain behind their 2019 performance on the math test, but results were better than those from 2021. Students’ performance also beat administrators’ projections, which predicted little to no gains on the state test. 

These gains also mean Fort Worth ISD and its schools could earn better letter grades from the Texas Education Agency. The state grades on an A-F scale and marks individual campuses and districts. This year, however, Texas will only give A-C grades and label D and F schools as not rated. Next year, the full spectrum of grades is expected to return.

Administrators projected an additional four A-rated schools, an almost doubling of B schools and decreasing the number of F schools to two from 18 in 2019, the last year schools were graded. Final ratings are expected Aug. 15. Superintendent Kent Scribner was pleased to see the academic performance of his district to be on an upward trend.

“We’re on our way to zero (F-rated schools),” Scribner told trustees on July 26.

Despite the district’s growth, school board members were unequivocal to staff: Fort Worth ISD can still do better.

“We are moving in the right place, but we are not where we need to be,” trustee Anne Darr said.

State, national context

Fort Worth ISD remains far behind the averages for the state and for Dallas ISD, which has similar demographics. Both saw gains.

In third- to eighth-grade math, Fort Worth ISD trails the state by double digits. 

2025 goal

Fort Worth ISD, city officials and business leaders set an ambitious goal in 2016: Have 100% of third-grade students reading on grade level or above. They dubbed the goal 100×25 FWTX.

Leaders focused on the third grade because literacy in that level can determine students’ success in all subjects. Students are expected to know how to read by the third grade. After that, they should be able to use their reading skills to learn.

Six years later, 34% of Fort Worth ISD third-graders failed their reading STAAR test.

Only single digits separated all but two grades in Dallas ISD; fifth-grade math was even with the state average, while seventh-grade math was 25 percentage points behind. 

Fort Worth ISD was 33 percentage points behind in seventh-grade math.

Both districts were behind the state averages on the reading test. However, Fort Worth ISD lagged behind the state more than Dallas.

Still, the gains are signs that students are beginning to bounce back from their pandemic-induced learning losses. The testing group NWEA produces an exam called MAP that is used in districts across the nation, including Fort Worth ISD. More than 8.3 million students took the test this past year.

NWEA saw students in early grades recovered some of their lost learning. However, the group found that Black, Latino and low-income students were still far behind. 

Encouraging signs for Black students

Sarah Arispe is a Fort Worth ISD associate superintendent who oversees accountability and data. Black students have long been the worst performing demographic group in Fort Worth ISD, she said. That trend has continued in 2022, but Arispe sees encouraging signs that these students are on the right path.

On the reading test, Black students from third to eighth grade performed better than last year. However, math remains a challenge, Arispe said.

How students learn math and reading is different. Those differences can explain why some students can improve their reading scores, but not perform as well on the math exam. 

“With reading, you learn a certain set of skills, and you get better and better at it. Math is new skills each year,” Arispe said. “It’s really hard to build new skills on a foundation where you may have gaps.”

Ensuring Black students are performing well on the math test is one of the district’s biggest challenges, she said.

Trustee Michael Ryan is a former educator. He examined the standardized test results and was shocked to see the low passing rate for Black students in the seventh grade. More than eight out of 10 Black students failed the math test. 

Ryan recognized teachers and district academic leaders have done good work to ensure Fort Worth ISD did not slip farther back. However, he told staff that making gains on already low performance rates among different demographic groups is still not good.

“In the end, we have to do better,” Ryan said.

‘Students are growing’

Fort Worth ISD administers the MAP exam to students three times a year: the beginning, middle and end. Administrators see the test as a key indicator of students’ likely performance on STAAR exams. The test also gives administrators a look at how much a student’s learning has grown since they last took the assessment.

Fort Worth ISD saw growth across students in kindergarten through eighth grade on the reading and math MAP tests. Some grades exceeded the national growth rate that the national; test creator observed. 

The national growth rate simply accounts for all students and does not include other factors, such as a student’s race and ethnicity or the area in which their district is located. That usually puts large, urban districts at a disadvantage, said Arispe, the associate superintendent.

However, the math growth rates of third-graders and fourth-graders in Fort Worth ISD exceeded national numbers. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students also exceeded the national growth rate on the reading test.

All of this growth is a positive for Arispe.

“Students are growing, and they are growing at a good rate,” she said.

‘Bust it to do even better’

Darr, the school board member, called the gains significant. She attributed the district’s positive movement to teachers and how they can impact students.

However, she was concerned about how the district will tackle math in the upcoming 2022-23 school year. Darr knew the district changed its approach and curriculum to reading. She asked district staff if anything similar is in the works for math.

An overhaul of how Fort Worth ISD teaches math is rolling out, Marcey Sorensen, chief academic officer, told Darr. Students will no longer learn to simply answer questions on a math test. Instead, they will be expected to understand the concepts, apply them and write about how they arrived at their answers.

Beyond a new curriculum, Fort Worth ISD will continue two programs administrators say have helped students: Saturday school and summer school. Extended time for learning has been a big boost and will continue to help the district make gains, Sorensen said.

“We plan to keep pouring in as much as we can for extended learning opportunities for our young people,” she said.

Additionally, Sorensen plans to propose a tutoring program to the school board. 

Ryan, the school board member, has mentioned in recent meetings that the district needed tutors to boost academic performance. He told district staff he hopes the tutoring program would bring people from the district’s community into the schools to help students. 

“We need everybody to make that work — it cannot be just a few,” he said.

Ryan also suggested that Fort Worth ISD try to allocate funding to hire students from surrounding universities to help tutor students. 

The trustee described tutoring as the best way to ensure all students have an opportunity to rise to a higher level of academic achievement.

“I appreciate the work that yall did to get us to this point — and you’re going to have to bust it to do even better,” Ryan said.

New year, same focus

Mayfield, the instructional coach at Stevens Elementary, is preparing for the upcoming school year. The first day of school is Aug. 15. He has faith that his students will continue to make progress.

The new school year will mark the return of the entire A-F letter grades campuses and districts can earn. The STAAR test, too, will see changes as it shifts to being administered only online and becomes more rigorous.

The year also will see a new superintendent take over Fort Worth ISD. Whomever the school board hires will walk into a district that seemingly has improved, but still has long to go to reach its goals. 

The new leader, return of high-stakes accountability and harder state tests aren’t at the top of mind of some teachers, though. They are more focused on students.

What Mayfield thinks will be important is for teachers and other educators to keep their students engaged. They can do that now because district leaders gave educators the leeway to teach in more creative ways and have dedicated new resources to classrooms — strategies that worked in the 2021-22 school year. Active learners will be better students — and pass whatever the state throws their way on the standardized test, Mayfield said.

The best way to keep students engaged is to make learning fun. Sometimes that means dressing up like a pirate. Other times that means using technology, like TikTok, to teach new concepts or even transforming a lesson into a rap. Regardless of how lessons are taught, Mayfield only sees benefits.

“Once they gain that (engagement), learning is going to take off exponentially more than it already has for our district,” Mayfield said.

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.