More than half of all San Antonio Independent School District students tested below average in math, while 48% of students tested below average in reading, according to assessments made at the beginning of the school year, school officials said Monday.

Students in grades pre-K through 8 performed worse on this school year’s early assessments than last year’s in both subjects, said Theresa Urrabazo, senior executive director for Data Operations & Services, during a school board meeting. On reading tests, 52% of SAISD students tested at the national average or above for their grade levels, down from 61% last school year. In math, 38% of students tested at the national average or above, down from 49% last school year.

“COVID hit SAISD particularly hard,” Urrabazo said. “It was hard for everybody, but it is definitely not unique to SAISD.”

The district’s large number of economically disadvantaged students is a principal reason pandemic-related learning loss was particularly acute, Urrabazo said. About 88% of SAISD’s 46,000 students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency. Additionally, the time students spent learning remotely since March 2020 has widened learning gaps for many students, who learn better in person, she said.

In pledging to remedy the issue, school board President Christina Martinez said SAISD has boosted students’ academic performance before, when roughly 8,000 students were in low-performing schools. In 2019, the state graded SAISD’s academic performance as a B, up from the previous year’s C rating.

“The lift of having to help accelerate student growth is something we’ve done before,” she said.

Interim superintendent Robert Jaklich echoed Martinez, adding that SAISD students have not experienced a “normal school year” in the past three years. The first step in getting students back to where they need to be academically was assessing them early this school year.

“This is a momentous task that we have in front of us, but we can do this,” he said. “The COVID pandemic threw everyone for a loss, and all school districts are in the same situation that SAISD is. However, we’re going to take responsibility for our students and work with our community partners and work with our staff and our board of trustees and come up with a really specific plan with an intentional focus to meet these needs.”

Urrabazo said second-graders showed the largest decline in the percentage of students testing at or above grade level. The last time many of those students were learning in classrooms was kindergarten. About 60% of second-grade students tested at least one year below grade level in reading, and 69% tested at least one year below grade level in math.

This graph shows the percentage of SAISD students who are performing below grade level in math, according to beginning-of-year (BOY) assessments. Credit: Courtesy / SAISD

Pre-K students who attended SAISD as 3-year-olds performed significantly better on the progress tests than 4-year-old students who are new to the district, Urrabazo said. About 85% of 4-year-olds who previously attended SAISD tested on track for math compared to 70% who are new to the district. In reading, 70% of 4-year-olds who attended pre-K the previous year were on track compared to 62% who are new to SAISD. Pre-K students took different academic progress tests than kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

Excluding pre-K students, the academic progress tests are good predictions for how students will perform on state standardized exams administered in the spring, Urrabazo said. The tests showed that 54% of students in grades 3-8 would not pass the math standardized exams, while 44% of students would not pass the reading standardized exams for the same grades.

This graph shows the percent of SAISD students who are performing below grade level in reading.
This graph shows the percentage of SAISD students who are performing below grade level in reading, according to beginning-of-year (BOY) assessments. Credit: Courtesy / SAISD

Trustee Ed Garza said the test results demonstrated that the district needs to have a plan to help students improve academically. In the short term, that means supporting teachers and other staff members and providing them with the resources they need because many of the answers will be at the campus level. He said that also means asking the greater SAISD community for help in closing learning gaps for students.

“We need to beat the drum that we are now in the second phase of COVID, which is the learning loss and the impact on our students,” Garza said. “We need the support. We need the resources, the partnerships to be able to address these issues.”

School board Vice President Alicia Sebastian asked how SAISD could help incentivize teachers to stay in the classroom because she knows that some teachers have left the district during the pandemic. Jaklich said the district would focus on supporting its “human capital” going forward and that the testing data showed the district where to guide resources and support for staff to close learning gaps.

Trustee Sarah Sorensen said the test scores were “not particularly surprising” given the switches from remote learning to in-person instruction over the past two school years, but she wanted staff to remember that the district needs to support students and teachers emotionally as well as academically.

“We need to take a comprehensive look at what we’re asking of our teachers at this time and put to the side anything that’s not absolutely necessary,” she said. “They need to be 100% focused on supporting their students and meeting their students where they’re at.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.