Fort Worth ISD administrators delivered a seemingly hard pill to swallow to the school board: Fewer third-graders would meet grade level on the state standardized test for reading than last year.

However, Sarah Arispe, associate superintendent of accountability and data, stressed at an Oct. 25 board meeting that these are just projections based on the first benchmark of the school year and serves as a roadmap of the work teachers and students have ahead of themselves.

“Luckily, this is not a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Arispe said.

Other indicators Fort Worth ISD monitors point to third-graders likely surpassing the 37% of students who met grade level on the reading portion of the 2022 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. However, administrators stressed teachers and students have plenty of work ahead of them to keep and sustain their gains from last school year.

Arispe’s STAAR projection showed 25% of students meeting grade level, 12 percentage points lower than what was recorded this past spring. That lower projection also appeared among the six student groups administrators track.

Third- to eighth-grade students are scheduled to take the reading and math STAAR exams in May. This year marks the beginning of a new version of STAAR that is expected to be more rigorous. The test also will only be administered online. 

The forecast Arispe presented to the school board was based on the testing group NWEA’s MAP exam. More than 8.3 million students took the test last year. MAP is administered three times a school year: the beginning, middle and end. The district’s estimates came from the beginning-of-the year exam.

Board Secretary CJ Evans expressed concern about the 19% of Black third-grade students who are expected to meet grade level on STAAR. The school board is set to revise its student outcome goals, and Evans wants to be sure they are supporting students of color read at their grade level.

Part of how Fort Worth ISD plans to ensure all students are at grade level is to fill their knowledge gaps. 

Marcey Sorensen, chief academic officer, broke down literacy into two areas that work together. There are the skills of reading, such as phonics, letters and actually putting together a word. That is the foundation, Sorensen said. Then there is the knowledge piece, things that students know about because they’ve experienced them at home.

“A child who has a knowledge gap will not be able to decipher all of those words,” Superintendent Angélica Ramsey said.

The district is filling in those knowledge gaps through students’ social studies and science classes where they are reading more and being exposed to new things.

Administrators, though, stressed all of this work cannot be done in just the third grade. They told trustees ensuring third-graders perform on grade level must happen in between pre-kindergarten and second grade.

“What we do in our pre-K to (second grade) space in terms of how we teach students how to read and what we do in that space around foundational literacy and skills is just as important as what we do in third grade,” Sorensen said.

Fort Worth ISD tests kindergarten through third-grade students for their reading fluency. 

So far, second-graders are testing 2 percentage points ahead of last year’s second-grade students on sentence reading fluency. First-graders are at the same fluency levels as last year. 

Kindergarteners, though, are tested on their phonological awareness, their ability to recognize and play with the spoken parts of reading and words. They are 2 percentage points lower than last year’s kindergarten students.

The results are consistent for what is expected from students at the beginning of the year, Arispe said.

These tests do not have high stakes, unlike the STAAR exams. Arispe described this data as important for teachers so they can use this information to find students’ weaknesses and strengths and tailor lessons to accelerate their learning.

Pre-kindergarteners in the district also are tested on their phonological awareness. For English speaking students, 59% of pre-kindergartens are on track this year, a slight decline of 1 percentage point from last year. Spanish-speaking pre-kindergarteners had a 2-percentage-point drop; 50% are on track.

The school board wants 84% of pre-kindergarteners to be on track on phonological awareness. In the 2021-22 school year, 79% were on track, but trustees’ goal was 83%.

Administrators also found that students who attend Fort Worth ISD’s pre-kindergarten performed better on the Texas Kindergarten Entry Assessment than those who did not. The district, though, does not have detailed enough data to break its numbers down further to see the performance of students who attended other pre-kindergarten schools and students who did not attend pre-kindergarten at all.

Trustee Roxanne Martinez, one of the school board’s vice presidents, told administrators she knows literacy does not begin once a student enters pre-kindergarten — it happens during the crucial years between birth and pre-k.

Fort Worth ISD is in the early stages of developing partnerships with organizations that work in that birth to 3-year-old area, Sorensen said. Typically, school districts do not look at that area, the chief academic officer said. Districts usually only look at the spaces they own, but administrators plan to change that. 

Ramsey sees hard conversations ahead for Fort Worth ISD as it builds partnerships with early childhood education centers and figures out at what age and for how long the youngest children go to school. 

All of that work must be done through a regional scope, Ramsey said. Fort Worth ISD has to talk with leaders from the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County government and nonprofits. Together, they can help better prepare parents to ensure their children have a good foundation for literacy. Otherwise, Ramsey warned, students will not be ready for college, the military nor their future careers.

“It has to be all of us working together,” the superintendent said. “That’s the way to get students reading at grade level by third grade.”

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.