Texas Public School Students Lag Behind in Reading

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Students in Yvonne McDaniel's Reading English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class participate in English-language exercises during summer school at McAllum High School in Austin, Texas, Jul. 31, 2013.
Students in Yvonne McDaniel's Reading English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class participate in English-language exercises during summer school at McAllum High School in Austin, Texas, Jul. 31, 2013.

WASHINGTON – Texas public school students continue to lag behind the national average in reading scores, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress scores released Thursday.

The “Nation’s Report Card,” as the NAEP assessment is called, scores eighth-grade and fourth-grade students on a scale of zero to 500 in reading and mathematics. U.S. schools as a whole maintained steady growth in both math and reading.

But Texas fourth-graders scored an average of 217 in reading, down a point from the 2011 results and below the national public school average of 221.

Texas eighth-graders saw a slight increase from 2011, scoring an average of 264 on the assessment, up from 261. However, that still falls 2 points short of the national average.

The state scored below the national average in 2011 as well.

Texas fared better overall in mathematics. Eighth-grade students surpassed the national average with a score of 288. Fourth-graders scored 241, a point higher than the national average.

DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman with the Texas Education Agency, said the reading scores were a disappointment.

“We’re certainly concerned that the scores are not where we want them to be,” Culbertson said. She said the agency would analyze the data to determine how to boost student achievement.

Culbertson said teachers in local school districts across the state will be using the assessment to guide instruction. It is also used as a barometer by the U.S. Department of Education.

Texas is not alone in the region in falling below in reading. Bordering states of Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico all scored below the national average on reading as well. 

The report accompanying the results color-codes the data, painting states surpassing the national average blue and states lagging behind black. The Southwest is almost entirely black. The Northeast is all shades of blue.

Massachusetts eighth-graders, for example, averaged 277 on the test, double digits above their Texas peers.

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, acknowledged that the numbers alone don’t paint a picture of what students actually know and are able to do. 

A fourth-grader scoring “proficient” in reading, for example, can identify the main point made in a reading passage; 41 percent of Texas fourth-grade students are scoring proficient or above in reading.

Broken out, white students in Texas outperformed the national average in both reading and math.

However, the gaps between white and minority students in Texas increased. Black eighth-graders in the state scored 26 points below their white peers in reading; Hispanic students were 24 points behind.

State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said NAEP results give Texas and other states an opportunity to form a strategy to increase achievement.

“We know in the state of Texas there are school districts that are absolutely getting phenomenal results with the students who typically across the country don’t fare as well in exams like the NAEP,” said Van de Putte, who served as a panelist on the web conference where the results were released.  

“We need to find out what they’re doing, share those best practices,” Van de Putte added. "But the data has to be clear.”

Van de Putte pointed to NAEP’s tracking of student groups as a way to focus on the story behind the numbers. Texas has a larger number of students classified as “English Language Learners” than most states. Nationwide, those students scored 39 points lower than their peers with an average score of 187 in fourth-grade reading. In Texas, they did slightly better, with an average of 194.  

In a news release, the TEA praised student achievement in mathematics, which was significantly above other large states like California.

“Strong performance in mathematics of our students at the elementary and middle school level establishes a foundation for future success in high school and beyond,” said Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams.

However, the eighth-grade score, though higher than the national average, represents a 2-point decline for the state from its 2011 scores. Culbertson confirmed that the agency would be analyzing this drop.

Holly Eaton, director of professional development and advocacy for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, believes funding plays a role in student achievement.

Texas spends $8,400 per public school student nationally, among the lowest in the country, Eaton said. Many states in the Northeast, where scores are higher, spend in the five figures. Eaton said budget cuts in recent years have depleted funding for programs that target struggling students.

“Our state has suffered some pretty dramatic budget cuts in the past couple of years,” Eaton said. “Typically when you see budget cuts, specialized programs tend to be the first cut.”

She said many schools have also had to increase class size at the elementary level, which makes it harder for teachers to give individualized attention. But Eaton, who reviewed the NAEP report Thursday, believes there’s positive news for Texas.

She points out that black students did better in Texas than they did nationwide.

“That we’ve done as well as we have is a testament to the hard work of teachers and students,” Eaton said. 

The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.

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