Texas students used to lead nation in math scores—what happened?

This post was written by CPPP Communications Intern Bianca Lopez.
Photo credit: Glenn Strong, Flickr. CC license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0
In general, math scores are a pretty good indicator of students’ future academic success. Rise and Fall of Texas STEM Education: Evidence from the nation’s report card, a new report by Professor Michael Marder of the University of Texas at Austin and CPPP’s Chandra Villanueva, gives us a blow by blow of how policy and budget changes at the state level end up affecting public school performance.
It wasn’t until 1999 that the nation’s report card—the National Assessment of Educational Progress – started releasing results by state. When we learned that Texas 8th graders’ math scores could be better, we started making improvements: we established statewide tests to keep track of students’ progress from elementary to high school. Students had to pass math and reading tests at 5th and 8th grade or risk being held back, and special tutoring and support programs were in place for kids who were struggling to meet those expectations. Every year from 2000 to 2011, state funding for public education either remained stable or increased. By 2011, our 8th graders had some of the highest average math scores in the nation—but they’ve been dropping ever since.
While It’s impossible to be certain of the exact causes of the decline, we need not look very far for plausible explanations. In 2011, the state Legislature cut the public education budget by more than $5 billion. The next few years brought a volley of bad changes: special education spending dropped, and the programs that had supported students who struggled with tests were nearly eliminated. Programs for bilingual students were hit hard. To top it all off, the state rolled out a new set of exams designed to raise academic standards. Those new exams invoked pushback from parents and advocates who felt passing scores were being raised too quickly, and eventually contributed to the opposite of their intended purpose.
This problem concerns all Texas public school students. In the years we performed better, we all performed better: when the 2011 math scores were broken down by income, results showed low-income students and well-off students alike had put us in the national lead. It’s the same story when scores are broken down by racial and ethnic groups: when scores dropped for low-income, Black and Hispanic students, they also dropped for those who were well-off regardless of race.
Our kids can excel at math. In fact, given adequate funding and smart strategies, we know they can be the best in the country. This is something we ought to be proud of, but while public debate in Texas remains hostile to the idea that money in education matters, we might see scores continue to drop, and we should be alarmed about it.

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