Texas Schools Implement Innovative Approaches to Improve Math Skills Among Children Following the Pandemic

In Eran McGowan’s math class, students collaborate in teaching each other.

If a student has the courage to share their method for solving a math problem, they stand up in front of their third-grade peers and say, “Everyone, look at me.” The classroom responds, saying, “Everyone is looking at you,” and the student then explains their approach.

This new curriculum, called Eureka Math, was implemented in the Dallas Independent School District this school year. It focuses on helping students develop a better understanding of mathematical concepts rather than solely focusing on their performance on standardized tests. The curriculum aims to move away from rote memorization.

In the words of McGowan, who teaches at the Eddie Bernice Johnson STEM Academy, the new curriculum “shifts away from using tests as a measure of success.” He further explains that it prioritizes comprehension of concepts, which, in turn, helps students succeed in assessments.

While the teaching approach differs, the ultimate goal remains the same: to improve students’ math scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Last summer’s results showed that Texas students have not yet caught up to the math scores they achieved in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 45% of students who took math in third through eighth grade or Algebra I passed the STAAR test last year. Although there was a slight increase in math scores compared to the previous year, they still lag by 7 percentage points behind the state average in 2019.

Furthermore, the number of students who have achieved mastery in math has not recovered since the pandemic. In 2023, only 19% of all Texas students mastered math at their grade level, down from 26% in 2019. Although Texas students’ overall math scores last year were 4 points higher than the national average, the percentage of students who have mastered math in the state lags significantly behind the national average of 38%, according to the Nation’s Report Card, which samples reading and math grades of fourth and eighth-grade students across the country.

Policymakers and educators are concerned that the low number of students mastering math will result in a lack of skilled workers to meet the demands of high-paying, in-demand jobs in the coming decades. They worry that Texas will have to rely on talent from outside the state. According to a study from Stanford University research, students who fail to bring their math scores back up to pre-pandemic levels will earn 5.6% less throughout their lives compared to students with higher grades just before the pandemic.

Gabe Grantham, a K-12 policy analyst at Texas 2036, a public policy think tank, expressed his concerns, saying, “Is our inability to raise children’s mastery of math going to limit their future job opportunities? If we don’t take action at the state level in 2025, we’ll be falling behind.”

Eureka Math’s effectiveness in Texas won’t be known until the next STAAR results are released later this year. However, there is optimism as approximately 400 other Texas school districts, both public and private, have adopted the curriculum. Districts across the country that have implemented the curriculum have seen improvement in test scores. Dallas ISD tested the program at Anson Jones Elementary before adopting it districtwide, and they witnessed an increase in students’ math scores and confidence.

The Texas Legislature has also taken steps to facilitate students’ advancement in math. Last year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2124, which automatically promotes middle school students to a higher math class if they perform well at a lower level.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the author of the law, believes that students achieving high math performance will have higher lifetime earnings, contributing to a robust Texas economy. Lawmakers, policy analysts, and public education officials are seeking additional ways to help students improve their math scores before the 2025 legislative session.

Although Texas lags behind other states when it comes to math reform at the legislative level, Grantham believes it’s important to design policies based on data and a careful evaluation of what works and what doesn’t.

“We don’t want to throw things at the wall and hope they stick,” Grantham said. “Everyone is searching for a single solution, but we need to identify what that solution looks like.”

At the moment, Texas is relying on laws enacted in recent years to assist struggling students, such as mandated tutoring and a law that facilitates access to “high-quality” instructional materials for teachers and districts. Texas education experts and school administrators believe these policies hold promise, although staffing shortages have made it challenging to comply with mandatory tutoring.

Challenges in Teaching

When the pandemic forced Texas schools to close and shift to virtual learning, STAAR scores hit a decade-low