Even though Bexar County students are showing gains in most of their preliminary State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) results from April, scores of at-risk students indicate they are not getting the help they need.

STAAR exams are administered every year in Texas public primary and secondary schools to assess students’ mastery of subject matter and determine their likelihood of succeeding in the next grade level.

Across the board, Bexar County districts showed improvements in grade 5 math and reading exams, but results for students classified as at risk of dropping out of school lag behind those of their peers in almost all Bexar County school districts, testing data shows.

A student is categorized as being at risk if he or she is behind at least one grade level in school, has limited English proficiency, has been expelled, is on parole or probation, is in the custody or care of the Department of Family and Protective Services, is homeless, or has lived in a detention facility, emergency shelter, psychiatric ward, or foster group home. Students can also qualify based on poor academic performance.

On average, 32 percent fewer at-risk fifth graders in Bexar County school districts passed the math portion of the exam than did their peers, and 22 percent fewer passed the reading segment. The gap in performance between at-risk and not at-risk students varied from district to district, reaching nearly 50 percent for students in Southside ISD taking the grade 5 math exam.

The map below shows the difference in the percentage of “at-risk” and “not at-risk” students who passed the fifth-grade reading and math portions of this year’s STAAR exams. Click on the checkboxes in the legend to view the performance gap for reading and math sections of the exam.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) said at-risk students are no longer a special population, and cannot be ignored by policymakers or educators.

“They are no longer a small fraction of a much larger student body,” he said.

Bernal said it is important to look beyond the overall passing rate of a district at how individual groups of students perform. This disaggregated data, he said, tells more about where districts and educators should focus resources.

“The gaps exist even in districts and campuses that otherwise do well, and the disaggregated data tells us that we still have work to do,” Bernal said. “You run the risk of allowing the overall success to mask the needs of certain students.”

SAISD Deputy Superintendent Pauline Dow said educators must target their support through a process called tiered interventions to the specific and varied needs of students based on their individual challenges. 

“Once [teachers] have used all of their tools in the toolbox and they need other support, that triggers a tiered intervention,” Dow said. “People who know the child then get around a table and create an intervention plan.”

If a student doesn’t pass the STAAR exam in April, he or she has additional testing opportunities in May and June to retake the exam. For this reason, results might fluctuate, although the pool of students retaking the exam becomes increasingly whittled into a smaller pool of students that have already had trouble passing, Texas Education Agency spokesperson Lauren Callahan said.

Districts with greater property wealth per student, like Alamo Heights, show smaller gaps in performance between at-risk students and their peers, suggesting that the resources available to those students might have improved their scores on the exam. However, the gap in performance for students passing the math exam, 22 percent, differs by 9 percent from the district-wide average performance gap of 32 percent, and just 4 percent for the reading exam, according to the released data.

Dow, who oversees a district with 75 percent of at-risk students, was surprised that the gap would persist in districts with smaller at-risk populations and more resources.

“We have way more at-risk students then [other districts] do,” she said. “Maybe we’re doing a better job of supporting and differentiating for at-risk kids. This is a big deal for us. … If I was in Alamo Heights I’d be asking myself, ‘Why can’t we close this gap with at-risk kids when we can in other areas?’”

About 27 percent of Alamo heights students are classified as at risk.

Southside ISD students saw the largest gap in passing rates between at-risk and non at-risk students, with 48 percent fewer at-risk students passing the fifth-grade math segment of the exam, and 42 percent fewer passing the fifth-grade reading segment.

STAAR exam scores play a large role in the state’s public school accountability system, which rates campuses and districts as either “improvement required” (IR) or “met standard” (MS). If a school receives a failing IR rating for five consecutive years after 2017-18, the TEA could order the campus to close.

Even though STAAR scores carry weight at the state level, Dow said SAISD teachers don’t use STAAR results to determine interventions.

“[By the time they take the STAAR] it’s too late. If we’re doing a good job, we pretty much know before the exam which students are going to be able to show what they know on a summative assessment.”

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Emily Royall

Emily Royall is the Rivard Report's former data director.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.