Houston ISD sees sharp declines in math and reading performance, along with rest of country, in first national assessment test since pandemic

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, conducted this year for the first time since 2019, found that student achievement declined across the country in math and reading. The results were similar in HISD, one of the participating urban districts in the study.

Millard House Houston ISD
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II speaks on Aug. 23, 2021.

Students in Houston's largest school district recorded their worst scores in nearly two decades in a national assessment test conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, mirroring a nationwide trend and illustrating how the COVID-19 pandemic has stunted children's academic development.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released Monday, show that math and reading scores among the 500,000-plus fourth- and eighth-graders who were tested this year declined in almost all regions of the country and in almost all states compared to 2019, the last year the study was conducted and the year before the onset of the pandemic. None of the 50 states saw significant improvements compared to 2019.

The decreases in math scores were the sharpest they have been since the initial assessment in 1990. Reading scores did not dip as drastically but still fell to 1992 levels.

"Let me be very clear: these results are not acceptable," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told the Associated Press.

Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas with 276 schools and nearly 197,000 students, was one of four urban districts in the state and 26 overall to participate in the biannual assessment, known as the "nation's report card." A sample of 5,400 HISD students from 107 campuses were tested, according to the district.

HISD's overall scores for eighth-grade math and reading were the lowest they had been since 2003 – the first year HISD participated in the biannual assessment – while the district recorded its worst scores yet in fourth-grade math and reading. Fewer than 50 percent of the eighth-graders tested from HISD performed at or above the NAEP's basic achievement level for math, whereas nearly 61 percent met the threshold in 2019.

"This year's NAEP scores are fundamental to understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our nation's education system in these core subjects at a pivotal period in our students' education journeys," HISD superintendent Millard House II said in a news release from the district. "This is why it continues to be important that we provide the necessary academic and non-academic supports to help every student succeed as detailed in our five-year strategic plan."

HISD saw declines across the board in the percentages of its students performing at or above basic achievement levels as defined by the NAEP. The number of students meeting the threshold for fourth-grade math fell from about 77 percent in 2019 to 63 percent this year, while those percentages dropped from 47 to 44 in fourth-grade reading and from 59 to 56 percent in eighth-grade reading.

HISD's overall scores in math were similar to the average scores for other public-school students in large cities, while its performance in reading was lower than average.

Nationally, this year's assessment found that achievement gaps widened along racial lines since the start of the pandemic. Black and Hispanic fourth-graders saw larger declines in scores than their white counterparts.

There have been similar trends in HISD, where the scores of Black and Hispanic students were more greatly impacted than those of white students in eighth-grade reading as well as in fourth-grade reading and math. Hispanic students account for more than 61 percent of HISD’s student population, which is more than 22 percent Black and less than 10 percent white.

Remote learning associated with the pandemic also has exacerbated inequities between higher-performing students (those at or above the 75th percentile) and lower-performing students (below the 25th percentile). Surveys that accompanied this year's test showed that, nationally, higher-performing students had more help from their teachers and better access to quiet spaces as well as computers and tablets.

"It is a serious wakeup call for us all," Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told the Associated Press. "... This is a very serious issue, and it's not going to go away on its own."