What happened to Texas math achievement and where will it go?

Posted on May 25, 2011


The best indicator of a state’s progress in math and reading are the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This is considered the “gold-standard” of tests. The assessments include some multiple choice tests, but also include many open-response items that require students to show their work and arrive at the correct answer rather than eliminating choices on multiple-choice items.

Texas made tremendous gains on the NAEP mathematics tests in the 1990s, especially the 4th grade mathematics test. Indeed, Texas was repeatedly singled out as a leader in education reform because of these large gains. Grissmer and Flanagan (1999) studied Texas and determined that reduced class sizes, business community support, and an accountability system that disaggregated scores by race/ethnicity and student socio-economic status were largely responsible for these gains. At the Brookings Institute symposium on statewide progress, Dr.Uri Treisman and I (2000) also argued that the increased equity in the school finance system also helped drive improvement.

But what happened since then? Are we still making progress? Commissioner Robert Scott often touts that our students are ranked at or near the top of their peers when compared to other states in the nation. Indeed, this is an accurate statement. Yet–it has been an accurate statement for 20 years. Our high-ranking has little to do with what we have done lately, but everything with what we did 20 to 30 years ago.

Let’s look at how our 4th grade students are faring.

Below I analyze the data–and we can see that Texas 4th grade students made tremendous progress from 1992 through 2003 and even through 2005. But then what happened? No growth in achievement. Simply flat-line from 2005 through 2007 and 2009. In fact, Hispanic students–by far the largest 4th grade racial/ethnic sub-population in 2009–showed a DECREASE in scores from 2007 to 2009. This caused the achievement gap to INCREASE between White and Hispanic students from 2007 to 2009. This was the first time the achievement gap increased between Texas racial/ethnic since the beginning of NAEP testing.

Now, reforms take years to impact achievement. So, the gains in the 1990s were influenced by changes in the 1980s (like smaller class sizes) and in the early 1990s (increased fiscal equity and the accountability system). What influenced the lack of gains in the late 2000s?

  • The dramatic increase in the percentage of new teachers from alternative certification programs, especially private alternative certification programs that have low entrance standards and even lower quality of preparation;
  • The decreasing equity and adequacy of the funding system;
  • The change from the Essential Elements to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills;
  • Increased focus on test preparation;and/or,
  • An accountability system on steroids that totally ignores growth?

Who knows. But it was not the increase in the percentage of students in poverty as shown in Figure 2. Indeed, the same pattern shown for racial/ethnic groups is shown for both not economically disadvantaged and economically disadvantaged students.

I do know that in 2002 and 2003, I predicted our NAEP scores would flatten out based on the increase in teachers from alternative certification programs–especially those with the lowest entrance standards and with the lowest quality programs. I might be right or I could be wrong. But clearly we have far, far lower standards for alternative certification teachers than for traditional undergraduate teachers and survey data collected by SBEC suggests that many of the alternative certification programs don’t have the types of activities associated with effective preparation.

So, at least in 4th grade math–the foundation for middle and high school math–Governor Perry, his commissioners, the State Board of Education, and the legislature have managed to enact policies that have had a negative effect on students’ mathematics knowledge and skills.

And what do you think increased class sizes, lower levels of funding, even more under-prepared/ not certified teachers, and decreased educator morale will do to scores? Yep–that’s what I think too!

I think that will be a fantastic platform on which to run for president!

I’ll look at 8th grade math scores in a future blog, but spoiler alert–no growth from 2007 to 2009.

And by the way, we have never, ever had any real change in

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