Rise and Fall of Texas STEM Education: Part Three

Fifth-Grade Math and Reading

by Dr. Michael Marder, Executive Director of UTeach and Professor in the Department of Physics, University of Texas at Austin

Fifth-grade math and reading scores in Texas schools rose from 2005 until 2011. Then they started to fall. They rose while Texas supported struggling students. Support stopped, and scores dropped.

FIGURE 1: PERCENTAGE OF STUDENTS IN ALL TEXAS SCHOOLS PASSING FIFTH-GRADE READING AND MATH ACCORDING TO THE STUDENT SUCCESS INITIATIVE.

College readiness by the end of high school in Texas has plummeted. Texas eighth graders, who used to lead the nation in mathematics, are dropping back. The picture would be less discouraging if elementary students were showing progress, but the best days for fifth grade math and reading are in the past as well.

Fifth grade is for most Texas students the final year of elementary school and a natural point at which to examine their educational progress. Between 2004 and 2011, the percentage of students passing math and reading rose from around 85% to over 90%. Since then, mathematics passage has fallen back to 85%, and reading passage rates dropped to the lowest levels measured, below 80%.

Why did passage rates rise? Why did they fall?

In 1999, Texas put in place a Student Success Initiative (SSI). It was a plan for student success with several different elements. Every student would take tests to measure their progress. The exam used to enforce these policies was the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), produced each year to uniform standards. Students completing fifth and eighth grade would not be able to advance automatically to the next grade if they did not pass the tests. When students failed, they received group or individual tutoring. If they failed a second time, they had to continue on to summer school. The state paid for the tutoring services, and for training of the tutors. If sufficient numbers of students broken out by subgroups did not pass exams by the second attempt, schools were labeled as needing improvement and could eventually face reorganization. There were incentives for students, teachers, and schools alike to achieve passing scores on the mathematics and reading exams, and resources made available to meet the goals.

To measure whether these policies were working, Texas required gathering and publishing test passage rates at fifth grade. That is why it was possible to prepare Figure 1 from public data. SSI actually did what it was designed to do, and test scores went up.

And then, in 2011, two things changed.

The first was that Texas decided it needed new exams. The TAKS was replaced by the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), which was somewhat more difficult. During the transition, schools were not accountable for student results, and that is why no scores were released to the public in 2011­2012, which accounts for the gaps in Figures 1 and 2. The exam results showed up again for the 2012–2013 school year, at a reduced passing standard. The passing standard reached its final value in 2013–2014, but passing rates continued to fall after that. In 2014–2015, there was such a backlash that the results of the mathematics exam were never released (hence, a dashed orange line), although reading was falling faster than mathematics. By 2016–2017, it became clear that passage rates in both math and reading were stuck at or below their levels in 2004–2005, when the SSI began.

This brings us to the second change. In the same year that the state introduced the STAAR, schools had to absorb large and sudden budget cuts, and what was cut the most was funds for the struggling students who most needed the Student Success Initiative.

This shows up in Figure 2. The top part of Figure 2 shows the passage rates of low-income students. Their passage rates were always lower than those of students overall, but by 2011, more than 90% of them were passing fifth-grade math and reading. Today fewer than 80% are passing reading. The lower part of the figure shows expenditure in the two main categories that helped struggling students: accelerated instruction, which is the name for expenditure on tutoring and other assistance, and expenditure on bilingual instruction, particularly important for students in Texas working to learn English. The spending in constant dollars per student (averaged over all Texas students) in these two categories has dropped from more than $1,500 per year to less than $1,000 per year.

FIGURE 2: PERCENTAGE OF LOW-INCOME STUDENTS IN ALL TEXAS SCHOOLS PASSING FIFTH-GRADE READING AND MATH ACCORDING TO THE STUDENT SUCCESS INITIATIVE (UPPER PANEL). EXPENDITURE PER STUDENT (ALL STUDENTS) IN CONSTANT DOLLARS, BREAKING OUT SUPPORT FOR BILINGUAL STUDENTS AND FOR STRUGGLING STUDENTS (LOWER PANEL).

No one can prove absolutely that it was the Student Success Initiative that made scores rise. No one can prove absolutely that budget cuts made them fall. But it is hard to find another explanation. The folks running Texas education once had a plan to raise up struggling students. They put it in place, and followed through for a decade. Scores rose. Then they stopped and scores dropped.