San Antonio students scored significantly lower on this year’s math and reading state standardized exams, with remote learners falling further behind their in-person peers, according to data released Monday by the Texas Education Agency.

Students lost the most ground in math, based on the test results. Statewide, students doing math at grade level or above dropped about 15 percentage points this year compared to 2019, the last time the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness were administered. The standardized exams were canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Monday that student proficiency in math fell back to 2015 levels, despite years of significant improvements.

“This is probably 800,000 more students in Texas in mathematics that are noticeably below grade level this year as a result of COVID,” Morath said. “It is important to remember that these are not numbers. These are children.”

He emphasized the need for students to return to classrooms to prevent further learning loss and close achievement gaps. Districts with higher levels of remote student enrollment saw the greatest declines in both reading and math proficiency. Students in school districts with less than 25% enrolled in person for most of the school year saw on average 32% fail the math exam and 9% fail the reading. In districts where in-person enrollment exceeded 75% most of the school year, 9% of students failed the math exam and 1% failed the reading.

“This is why it is so important this fall for us to have a very strong return to in-person instruction for all Texas students,” he said.

North East Independent School District Superintendent Sean Maika said that was his major takeaway from the STAAR scores in the district of roughly 60,400 students. He said some regression was expected but that NEISD students’ performance on the exams reflected statewide trends.

Eighth grade math scores in NEISD dropped the most this year. In 2019, 22% of eighth graders failed the math exam, while 35% did not pass this year. Comparatively, 18% of eighth graders failed the reading test in 2019, while 25% did not pass this year.

Maika, a former math teacher, said it is more difficult for students to make up for missed math lessons than reading. If students miss learning a skill, it is hard for them to learn the next one.

“Math is foundational, and it builds upon year upon year upon year,” he said. “You don’t forget to read overnight.”

Northside and San Antonio ISDs saw similar trends in their test results, with the biggest drop in scores on the eighth grade math exam. This year, 82% of SAISD students did not pass the eighth grade math test, up from 43% in 2019. Meanwhile, 43% of NISD students failed the eighth grade math test, up from 15% in 2019.

SAISD officials did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Janis Jordan, NISD's deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the task ahead for educators is "daunting," but she doesn't think the standardized exams should be the only guidepost used to determine how well students learned this past school year. Students endured testing disruptions, switching between in-person and remote learning environments, and their own personal difficulties.

“At the end of the day, we know this year we have a reprieve from accountability, but back next year, our students will be held accountable. Our schools, our teachers, our administrators will all be held accountable for this high stakes test," she said. "We do need to consider students’ performance on STAAR — not in a vacuum — but it is one data point that certainly districts need to be analyzing.”

NISD plans to use some of the federal coronavirus relief funds designated for the district to address the learning gaps by providing teachers with professional development and implementing acceleration instructional methods, Jordan said. Accelerated instruction involves teaching students grade-level material while building up the skills they lack as they need them, which research has shown to be more effective than remediation or teaching students material below grade level before moving on to the next.

Under the recently signed House Bill 4545, schools must provide students who failed the third through eighth grade exams and high school end-of-course exams this year with accelerated instruction in the next school year or summer. Students must be taught by a certified master, exemplary, or recognized teacher, as defined by the state, or they must receive additional tutoring. Parents also can request a different teacher for their students.

Morath said when schools use remediation efforts to catch up students who are learning below grade level, they miss out on learning their current grade level material.

"That means that not only did they miss last year's content, but they're going to miss this year's lesson," he said. "Under House Bill 4545, students must have access to grade-level instruction, while also being given their tutoring supports."

Additionally, under the bill, fifth and eighth grade students no longer have to pass their STAAR exams to advance to the next grade level.

This story has been updated with correct STAAR results for Edgewood ISD.

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Brooke Crum

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