Texas Should Support Online Learning Options

The following testimony was delivered to the Senate Committee on Education on August 10, 2021, and the House Committee on Education on August 24, 2021.

The results of the 2021 STAAR test provided a shocking look into the impact of the pandemic on student learning. The number of students not meeting grade level increased across almost all subject areas and grade levels with notable drops in math and reading achievement. In fact, there was no subject in grades 3 through 8 in which more than 50 percent of students met grade level.

Bar chart depicting declines in student outcomes between 2019 and 2021

2Source: Texas Education Agency

Unsurprisingly, the method of instruction (in person vs. virtual) had a significant impact on student outcomes. Districts with a higher percentage of students learning virtually generally experienced a greater degree of decline. The quality of virtual learning offered by schools varied greatly, and it is clear most students are best served by in-person instruction. However, some districts with large percentages of remote learners did see performance improvements. Texas should capitalize on this innovation by offering greater access to rigorous, high-quality coursework for all Texas students — especially those in rural and low-income districts — through online learning.

Scatter plot depicting change in percentage of students that met grade level or above in math vs percentage of students remote in each district

Source: Texas Education Agency

Rigorous courses such as AP, IB, and Algebra I are critical to preparing middle and high school students for college. As more jobs across the country require postsecondary degrees and credentials, these types of courses will play an ever more important role as bridges to college and—ultimately—good jobs and economic opportunity. Students who pass Algebra I in 8th grade are more likely to take and succeed in college-level math. Students who score a 3 or higher on just one AP exam are 6 percentage points more likely to graduate from college within 4 years.

Yet in Texas, access to rigorous courses is too often limited by a student’s ZIP code. Beginning perhaps as early as 6th grade, students are both formally and informally sorted into course pathways that will have far-ranging effects on the rest of their lives. To meet our state’s future workforce needs and ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed, we must work to expand access to rigorous coursework in middle and high school for all students, regardless of background.

In Texas, only one in every four 8th graders enrolls in Algebra I. Further, wide disparities exist in Algebra I participation by student demographic, including:

  • Only 19 percent of low-income 8th graders take Algebra I, compared to 41 percent of non-low-income students
  • Only 15 percent of 8th graders in rural districts take Algebra I, compared to 32 percent of 8th graders in major suburban districts and 27 percent of 8th graders in major urban districts

Districts such as Southwest ISD in San Antonio have dramatically expanded Algebra I in middle school and seen remarkable results. But across the state, progress has been slow and uneven. Middle schools are still not required to offer Algebra I in 8th grade, even if their students are ready academically.

Advanced course participation has expanded quickly in Texas since the 1990s, with roughly 380,000 high school students enrolling annually in AP or IB and 200,000 more students enrolling in dual credit. But despite rapid growth, access to advanced coursework is not equitably distributed across student populations.

  • In 2018, only 20% of low-income 11th and 12th graders took an AP or IB exam, compared to 34% of non-low-income students.
  • And while 60% of non-low-income testers earned a passing score, only 34% of low-income testers did.

Students in rural districts also frequently lack access to AP, IB, and dual credit. Given that small rural districts often do not have enough prepared and interested students to fill out a classroom, it sometimes makes little financial sense for these districts to offer advanced courses. High-quality online programs can solve this problem and expand access for rural students around the state. By allowing students to enroll in virtual courses offered by other districts, Senate Bill 15 represents a positive improvement. We urge the Committee to support online learning options while ensuring all students can attend in-person.

1 Spring 2019 and Spring 2021 STAAR Data
2 Spring 2019 and Spring 2021 STAAR Data
3 By 2036, 71 percent of jobs in Texas will require at least some postsecondary experience (via Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, embargoed projection, February 2020).
4 Texas Education Agency, “Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Examination Results in Texas Public Schools, 2017-18,” Table 9, p. 17; Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, “Dual Credit and Total Enrollments, Fall Semester” report, 2019.
5 Texas Education Agency, Texas Academic Progress Report, 2019.