AUSTIN (Nexstar) — More than 865,000 students in grades 4-10 at Texas public schools are noticeably below grade level proficiency in math for the 2021-22 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency.
TEA Commissioner Mike Morath held a press call with reporters this week to share how newly-required accelerated learning programs aim to close learning gaps exaggerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In mathematics alone, they are noticeably below grade level this year,” Morath said. “It’s roughly 300,000 more students that are noticeably below grade level than in normal years.”
In 2019, there were 571,581 students grades 3-9 who did not meet their grade level threshold for the mathematics section on STAAR exams.
“Without significant changes, those kids just stay behind,” Morath said.
Texas lawmakers are hoping some of those problems are solved through its COVID Learning Acceleration Supports program (TCLAS), which they allocated more than $16 billion for during the regular session. The funds are going toward resources and programs for districts to boost learning that was hurt by the pandemic.
Morath said with previous disruptive events like Hurricane Katrina (when some kids moved to Texas in the disaster’s aftermath), long-term studies on those students showed it took years for them to catch up in several core subjects.
“After intensive support in their new school systems, they caught up to state averages in reading, but they never caught up in math,” he said.
The commissioner acknowledged there has been “much debate” over standardized testing, but said the data is heavily reliable and helpful in predicting future outcomes for students, even long after school.
“[Standardized testing] these are not causal, the whole purpose of education is to fill in, is to provide an education… but they are predictive of things that come later. They’re essentially strongly linked over time with lifetime earnings,” Morath said.
Based on that model of how early educational development and performance affects lifetime earnings, TEA is predicting negative long-term financial impacts on these students who are underperforming as a result of the pandemic, if they do not catch up.
“Given the level of proficiency decline that we have seen writ large across all 5.5 million kids in Texas, we would expect a roughly 6% decline in lifetime earnings for this group of students, relative to the group of students who say graduated in the class of 2018 right before coronavirus hit.”
However, accelerating learning programs — which are not new to Texas — have been effective tools in getting students back to that grade-level proficiency, Morath says. Under the new law, each time a student fails to perform at a satisfactory level on grade STAAR assessment or an end of curriculum assessment, districts must provide accelerated instruction to the student in the following summer or school year.
Under the law, districts require one of two options of accelerated instruction:
- Districts can assign a student to a teacher who is certified as a master, exemplary or recognized teacher for subsequent school year in the applicable subject area.
- Students can receive at least 30 hours of supplemental instruction, like tutoring, during the school year and/or in summer. If during the school year, instruction must happen at least once a week. Each school system has been provided $1,290 per student in need of supplemental instruction.
The Association of Texas Professional Educators says the number one concern with implementation is staffing.
“It points to the difficulty you have when the state creates a program that doesn’t take into account the resources that educators need to get children back on track,” said Mark Wiggins with the government relations division of the association.
TEA cited research from Brown University showing high-quality tutoring can help students make five months of additional progress during the regular school year. Under the TCLAS, funding is going toward expanding tutoring in school districts.
“If you can implement it effectively, it’s worth about five months worth of instructional gain and extra instruction for the kids that receive this particular high impact tutoring,” Morath said.
The commissioner said it will take time for school districts that are newly implementing accelerated learning instruction to reach the same level of instruction quality from districts that already had such programs.
“This is a big operational change for a school system to make if they had have they not been set up to do this. It can have an implication on scheduling kind of implication on staffing. And when I say scheduling, I don’t just mean like the calendar for the year… I even mean daily calendar,” Morath said.
Morath said TEA is doing everything it can to provide school districts with the resources and tools needed to streamline implementing accelerated learning and that it will improve with time.
KXAN spoke to Austin Independent School District, and educators say they have regular assessments for students, and they provide them with customized learning plans to help close the learning gap in subjects like math.
“As much as we want to accelerate student learning through tutoring and through very carefully curated experiences, we also know that people learn best when they feel like they’re in a safe, cared-for environment, and so we’re making sure that we start there,” said Dr. Suzanne Newell, executive director of curriculum and instruction at Austin ISD.
To alleviate some of the burdens already placed on teachers, the district is providing ready-to-use digital and written materials for lesson plans. Schools will also receive funding to provide extra resources to address learning gaps.
“We are facilitating the process of doling out some of the federal relief funds to campuses, so that if they need to pay teachers after school or hire tutors to come into the building or subscribe to a digital virtual tutoring program, we’re providing menus of things that at the campus level will be best determined to meet students’ needs,” Dr. Newell said.
Newell says an important thing to remember is although students spent several months learning virtually, they also learned things like building deeper family bonds and new technology skills. She is encouraging teachers to build upon the assets students have gained over the past year, which could also help them excel in the classroom.