Finally, there’s good news on Fort Worth schools. But students still need a lot more help

·3 min read
Yffy Yossifor/yyossifor@star-telegram.com

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Texas Education Agency has graded public schools. The results showed surprising progress.

The Fort Worth Independent School District, which had a C rating in the last two years it’s been reviewed, was upgraded to a low B rating (81 out of 100). It’s only two points ahead of their 2019 rating, but at least it’s forward progress. Thirty-four campuses improved their scores — 8 moving up to A and 26 moving up from C to B.

We’ve been hard on the Fort Worth ISD at large and rightly so: At the end of 2020, statistics showed 55% of students’ grades in math alone dropped during the first semester. In that first part of the fall semester, 44% of high school freshmen students were failing at least one subject. Minority students especially struggled.

Improvement is welcome, especially as the school board looks to hire a new superintendent. He or she will have something to build on but still face a gargantuan task. Far too many children still aren’t up to speed, especially in core subjects. That must be the new leader’s No. 1 priority.

A low B rating in no way means that the budget should not be under strict scrutiny, that curriculum should not continue to meet high standards, and that the needs of minority students should not continue to try to be met.

Other area school districts’ scores were encouraging too: Arlington maintained a solid B score, as did Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD. Unfortunately, Northwest ISD fell from an A to a B by just a few points.

The ratings are based on a combination of factors: STAAR scores, graduation rates and readiness outcomes for life after schooling. While they’re certainly not a foolproof measurement of success, failure, or even progress, it’s a helpful tool to understand if schools and their districts are closing achievement gaps.

More Texas schools earned high marks from the state this year than they did before the pandemic, a good and welcome surprise. Almost 75 % of Texas schools earned an A or B in the state’s academic accountability rating system compared to 60% in 2019. No scores were taken during the pandemic, in 2020 and 2021.

The fact that the entire country endured a two-year long pandemic, with Texas schools going virtual for approximately four months of that period, and scores barely declined is a good sign for Texas kids. Teachers and students not only dealt with instructional loss during the virtual months but disruptions from quarantines, constant COVID testing and, for many, the impact from the illness itself. The pandemic brought stress that spawned behavioral issues, too.

While we don’t have enough statistics yet to compare Texas, a state that remained largely open during the pandemic, to states that forced schools to hold sessions virtually all year, like California, Virginia, or New York, it’s possible that keeping schools open — as we often encouraged — helped schools maintain high ratings.

We do know, though, that nationwide statistics indicate that the pandemic was devastating for many students. According to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, average fall 2021 math and reading test scores for grades 3-8 fell considerably. Test score gaps between students in low-income area schools compared to higher income area schools widened as well. So, while the nation is struggling to recover, Texas students appear to be at somewhat of an advantage in that their learning loss was not nearly as steep as it could have been.

The Texas education system still has a ways to go. Compared to other states, it’s been below average on reading and roughly average on math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

But coming through a pandemic with as little learning loss as possible is an achievement worth celebrating. Now, especially in Fort Worth, it must be a stepping-stone to real gains, especially for the neediest students.