By law, Texas high school students must pass the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) in five subjects to graduate: Algebra I, English I, English II, Biology, and U.S. History. However, the legislature voted to make an exception this year and allow students to graduate without passing their STAARs.
Statewide results for the spring STAARs show a considerable drop in algebra, biology, and U.S. history scores. Though English has long been the state’s lowest-scoring subject, the English STAARs were the only subjects to see higher scores compared to 2019.
The STAAR was not administered at the end of 2020, so the most recent end-of-year comparison is 2019, when 93 percent of students passed the U.S. History STAAR. That number dropped to 88 percent in 2021.
Biology scores dropped as well with a seven-point decline in passing students between 2019 and 2021.
Students fell steepest in Algebra I. After showing modest increases year after year since 2013, the percentage of students that passed the Algebra I STAAR dipped to 72 percent in 2021, the lowest on record since the STAAR was first administered in 2012.
English remained the lowest-scoring STAAR subject but rose steadily this year in its share of passing students, following trends beginning in 2017 and 2018.
Results vary from place to place across the state. The Panhandle has the highest passing percentage in algebra and biology, with its Permian Basin neighbors to the south tied with the state’s northeasternmost corner for second place.
The Abilene region beats the rest of the state in U.S. history and English.
The Pecos River region suffers from the lowest percentage of passing students in both English tests. The region’s best subject was U.S. history with 84 percent of students passing. Across the state, U.S. history remains the best-scoring subject.
For varying reasons, the STAAR test has long faced scrutiny from both Republicans and Democrats.
Conservative Republican lawmakers like Reps. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) and Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) have criticized the test as rigid or limited, with Krause suggesting that it be swapped for post-secondary tests like the SAT.
On the other side of the aisle, education unions for both administrators and teachers advocate against standardized tests entirely. Democratic lawmakers also consistently stave off attempts at results-based funding — rewarding schools financially for STAAR scores — though school funding debates often reveal factions within the party.
The legislature decided in 2019 to move the STAAR to an all-online platform. Though the state won’t fully implement online testing until the 2022-2023 school year, the decision proved fateful when technical issues hamstrung the STAAR this April, refreshening perennial criticism of the test.
STAAR results for each school district can be found here.
Scores gathered by the U.S. Department of Education tell a similar story, though side-by-side comparisons between state and federal tests can easily mislead.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal test taken every two years by a sample of students in each state, released results for its science test late last month. The latest results come from the 2019 NAEP test and suggest that the pandemic exacerbated but may not have caused certain downward trends.
While Texas-specific science scores haven’t yet been released, national trends are disappointing, NAEP head Mark Schneider wrote.
“In the world of student performance as reflected in NAEP, ‘no change in scores’ is about the best news we get. And so it is with the latest science results: little change overall, with students at the bottom of the score distribution falling even further behind.”
Over a quarter of American 4th graders and a third of 8th graders scored below basic proficiency in science in the 2019 NAEP.
Students are considered “proficient” if they score above 250 out of 500 in the 4th grade and 300 out of 500 in the 8th grade. Neither Texas nor the nation have reached proficiency since the 1990s in 4th or 8th grade math, reading, or science.
While the government hasn’t collated Texas’s science results yet, the state’s 2019 math and reading scores are available. According to Texas’ report card, the state remains above the national average in 4th grade math but still lacks proficiency in all areas.
Unlike 4th grade scores, Texas’ 8th grade results have steadily lagged. 8th grade scores in reading and math have both dropped consistently in the past decade. In fact, 2019 marked the first year since 2011 that Texas 8th graders dipped below the national average in math.
4th grade math is the only subject in which Texas ranks above the national average. Only 2 other states, Massachusetts and Minnesota, score higher than Texas in 4th grade math. Texas 4th graders bounced up in math and reading from 2017 to 2019.
12th grade scores for Texas are unavailable, complicating any direct comparison between the NAEP and the STAAR.