Third-grader Kimberly Torres taps her pencil against the screen as she follows along to her teacher’s lecture. (Denise Cathey/Special to El Paso Matters)

The percentage of El Paso students who failed this spring’s state standardized math exams nearly tripled — a severe decline the state’s top education official attributes to the region’s decision to delay offering on-campus instruction.

Close to 47% of all Region 19 students who took a State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness math exam this spring “did not meet grade level,” according to an El Paso Matters analysis of combined STAAR results released Monday for grades 3-8 and high school end-of-course exams. That’s a 30-point increase from 2019, when about 17% of the region’s test takers were not on grade level. Region 19 covers districts in El Paso and Hudspeth counties.

About 38% of Region 19 students did not meet grade level in reading, up from 28% in 2019. 

Students who “did not meet grade level” show “a lack of basic understanding of course content” and need “significant support” in the coming school year, the Texas Education Agency says.

Statewide, student failure rates this spring increased from 2019, the last year the STAAR exams were given before the start of the pandemic. Student performance suffered more in math than in reading, a trend seen nationwide.

“The impact of coronavirus on what school means, and what school is, has been truly profound,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Monday during a call with reporters.

The sudden transition from in-person instruction to virtual learning reversed years of academic improvement, he said.

The share of all Texas students not on grade level in math — who effectively failed the exam — rose 16 percentage points, from 21% in 2019 to 37% this year, according to data provided by the TEA. In reading, 33% of students failed this year’s exams, compared to 29% in 2019.

Performance declines worse for remote learners

“What we know now with certainty is that the decision in Texas to prioritize in-person instruction was critical,” Morath said.

Students who spent the 2020-21 school year learning remotely experienced greater performance declines in both subjects than those who received in-person instruction, a TEA analysis of STAAR scores shows. 

Districts where less than a quarter of students received in-person instruction for most of the year saw their percentage of students failing math exams increase by 32 percentage points and those failing reading increase by 9 points compared to 2019. Black and Hispanic students and low-income students who learned virtually saw greater learning loss than their peers.

El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley — which prior to the pandemic had some of the state’s highest rates of students meeting grade level standards — saw the largest performance declines, Morath said. These border regions previously “served as outliers that were positive and after coronavirus it’s the reverse,” he noted.

“In El Paso, as a region, there was a very significant reluctance to have in-person instruction for much of the school year and it’s been very problematic for students in El Paso,” he said.

COVID-19 death rates in the Texas border area were far higher than in other parts of the state and well above national averages.

Many districts in El Paso and the Valley did not offer in-person learning until late January, when the TEA no longer permitted them to offer only virtual instruction. Even when on-campus learning became available, many students continued learning online because the border regions of the state were the hardest hit by the virus.

About three-quarters of Socorro Independent School District students finished the school year learning from home and about two-thirds of Ysleta students did the same. Though 45% of El Paso Independent School District students ended the year virtually, this number was 10% to 20% higher earlier in the spring, spokesperson Melissa Martinez said.

Morath: Catching students up ‘will take several years’

The STAAR exams, which are typically mandatory for all students, were optional this spring for students learning remotely, resulting in 9 percent fewer Texas students taking the tests compared to 2019. Morath said 2021’s results still allow for “fairly effective comparisons” between previous years.

Even fewer Region 19 students took the STAAR exams this year, down by 20% in math and 33% in reading, according to an El Paso Matters analysis.

Manny Soto, the data director at the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Economic Development, or CREEED, said he believes the region would have seen higher rates of students testing below grade level had similar numbers taken the exams this year as they did in 2019.

The decrease in test takers reflects parents opting children out of the exam, and also correlates with students who disappeared from classes and “weren’t getting any education at all” this last year, Soto said.

Morath called El Paso districts’ “broad embrace” of an intersessional calendar “heartening.” The calendar features breaks at the end of each grading period where students who have fallen behind can receive remedial instruction.

House Bill 4545 by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, will also help students catch up, Morath said. This new legislation, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law earlier this month, requires districts to provide weekly intensive tutoring for any student in grades 3-8 who does not meet grade level standards. Additionally, third- and eighth-grade students who fail a STAAR exam can no longer be held back.

The commissioner was pragmatic in his analysis of how long it will take to get Texas students back on track, saying, “it will take several years of change and supports in order to help kids catch up.”

Cover photo: McAllen ISD third-grader Kimberly Torres follows along her teacher’s lecture as she participates in virtual learning. (Denise Cathey/Special to El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.

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