San Antonio Independent School District students either performed better on midyear progress tests or didn’t lose as much academic ground since the beginning of the school year as they did last year, school officials said.

Students in grades 3-8 performed better overall on midyear math assessments, compared to last school year and in the fall, said Theresa Urrabazo, senior executive director for Data Operations and Services, during a school board meeting this week. On reading, students in those same grades performed slightly worse on reading tests, compared to their performance in the fall and last school year.

SAISD also tested 4-year-old pre-K students, more of whom performed better on math and reading assessments than last school year, Urrabazo said. About 72% of pre-K students tested on track for reading, up from 65% in 2020-21, and 82% were on track for math, compared to 77% last school year.

Urrabazo said the test scores demonstrate students’ ability to gain academic ground from the beginning of the school year to the middle. But when comparing the scores to last year’s results, she emphasized that it was important to note how long students had been learning remotely when they tested last school year.

“It can’t be apples to apples, when one year we were remote, [because] you still have the impact of that remote instruction,” she said.

On reading tests, 47% of SAISD students tested at the national average or above for their grade levels, down from 52% in the fall and 50% in 2020-21. In math, 41% of students tested at the national average or above, up from 38% in the fall and 40% last year.

A graph shows the Middle of Year data for reading. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Independent School District
A graph shows the Middle of Year data for math. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Independent School District

Moreover, Urrabazo said, the national averages for student performance on these academic progress tests reflect student scores from pre-pandemic years, so evaluating students based on those metrics after years of virtual instruction is not entirely accurate.

Across grades 3-8, students performed worse on reading assessments taken at the beginning of this school year than in the 2020-21 school year, but they showed more improvement by the time students tested again in January. In math, students showed improvement from the beginning of the school year to the middle, unlike last school year.

“Growth has never been more important than it is this year, to demonstrate growth, individual student level growth,” she said. “We need to bounce back so we can close the gap that we saw because of COVID.”

Complicating the measure of academic progress, interim Superintendent Robert Jaklich said SAISD saw staggering numbers of student and staff absences in January, when the progress assessments were taken, because of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

“From July to December, we had 3,000 positive cases of COVID across the district. But in the month of January, we had 8,200, and out of 8,200, we had 7,100 student [cases],” he said. “It was a very difficult time to gather data.”

Jaklich added that he expected the district to get a better picture of students’ academic recovery toward the end of the school year.

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 79% who are new to the district. In reading, 75% of 4-year-olds who attended pre-K the previous year were on track compared to 69% 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 more students in grades 3-8 would perform better on the reading standardized exams than on the math, but the results vary by grade level.

For example, progress test results predicted that 45% of third graders would pass the reading standardized exams, and 42% did, Urrabazo said. In seventh grade, the tests predicted about 62% of students would pass the reading standardized exams, and roughly 50% did.

“We’re continuing to look at that information to see how well the data predicts,” she said.

State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) wrote a letter last month to Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, calling for the officials to “take all necessary action” to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) again this year. Beto O’Rourke, Democratic candidate for governor, also called for the exams to be canceled. Both said the STAAR puts unnecessary pressure on students and teachers during the pandemic.

“It would be irresponsible to place our students and education communities in harm’s way during this pandemic using a system that has repeatedly only set our children and schools up for failure,” Menéndez wrote in the letter.

In 2020, state and federal officials canceled the standardized exams, which are required under federal law. But officials have not made any announcements about possibly waiving testing requirements this year.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.