El Paso-area students’ performance on this year’s state reading exams exceeded pre-pandemic levels, but the rate of students meeting grade-level math standards has yet to recover. That’s prompted state education officials and local districts to make catching students up in math a major focus of the next school year.

In Region 19, which covers El Paso and Hudspeth counties, 49% of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in elementary and middle school reading and on the English I and II exams, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of preliminary State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exam data released July 1. That’s an 11-percentage point jump from last year.

In math, 38% of the region’s students met grade-level expectations on the elementary and middle school math and Algebra I exams. Though an increase from last year — when less than a quarter of the region’s test-takers were at grade level — it’s nowhere near pre-pandemic performance.

“The picture is very strong in reading, and the news is good in math, but we still have a lot of work to do to recover from the impacts of the pandemic in terms of students’ mathematical knowledge and skills,” Texas education commissioner Mike Morath said at a June 30 news conference about the statewide test results.

El Paso students’ performance on this spring’s standardized tests mirrors that of the state as a whole.

While Texas students gained ground in both subjects compared to last year, students posted the greatest improvement in reading, performing at levels that state education officials projected before the pandemic.

Statewide, 52% of students who took the reading exam performed at or above grade level, up nine percentage points from last year and five points from 2019. The state canceled STAAR testing in 2020.

Students who meet grade level “have a high likelihood of success in the next grade or course but may still need some short-term, targeted academic intervention,” according to the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the STAAR test.

Morath attributed these performance gains to the state’s investment in reading intervention. That effort started before the pandemic as a way to increase students’ reading proficiency, which long lagged behind the national average.

During the 2019 legislative session, state lawmakers mandated that all kindergarten through third grade teachers complete a 60-hour reading skills course. Teachers initially had until the end of the 2022-23 school year to complete it, but the deadline has been extended due to the pandemic.

State-mandated tutoring for students who failed last year’s STAAR exams also had “broad-based effects” on student performance, Morath said, in reference to House Bill 4545. Passed last year, that law required districts to provide at least 30 hours of intensive tutoring in each 2021 subject exam a student failed.

Given the success of the state’s investment in reading, lawmakers may consider a similar approach in the 2023 legislative session, the education commissioner said.

“Similar-scale investments in mathematics would likely bear real fruit for us,” Morath said.

Statewide, 40% of students who took a STAAR math exam met or exceeded grade-level standards, up from 35% in 2021. That’s the largest single-year percentage increase in the last decade, according to a TEA analysis.

Still, the percentage of Texas students performing at grade level remains well below 2019, when half were testing at grade level.

Prior to the pandemic, a higher percentage of El Paso-area students performed at or above grade level in math than the state average. But since 2021, the region’s students, on the whole, have trailed the state, by 12 percentage points last year and two points this year.

A handful of grades, though, saw above-average math performance compared to the state: 49% of El Paso students met grade level in Algebra I, compared to 46% of all Texas students; and a slightly higher percentage of El Paso fourth and fifth graders performed at grade level.

Math was among the hardest subjects to teach remotely because so much of it involves hands-on instruction and activities, said Kelly McBain, director of research and evaluation at the Socorro Independent School District.

The 2021-22 year was the first full school year that all El Paso students received in-person instruction since spring 2020, when they switched to remote, online instruction.

While the extended period of remote instruction contributed to significant learning loss in math, it may have contributed to the gains in reading, McBain said.

“(When) we are face-to-face, sometimes the teacher does more of the talking,” she said. “But when we were in the virtual environment, I do think kids had more opportunity to read independently and practice their skills.”

Socorro ISD also prioritized boosting students’ literacy skills in recent years, an approach the district will now use to close learning gaps in math.

“Because we have been so heavily focused on reading, we will be taking a deeper look at math instruction and practices at the campuses to really support that for all of our students,” McBain said.

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, with...