Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke has made improving education one of his campaign priorities. He wants to expand full-day pre-K, increase per-pupil spending, keep teachers in the workforce and reduce Texas' emphasis on standardized testing.
In place of that emphasis, the campaign's director of policy and research Gina Hinojosa wrote, Texas could develop strategies "that better allow teachers to teach to the student, not to a standardized test."
At a November rally, O'Rourke released a startling statistic while speaking about increasing teacher pay.
"Right now, in the average Texas fourth grade classroom, 7 out of 10 kids cannot read at grade level," O'Rourke said.
That would mean most fourth grade students in Texas are reading below grade level. We took a look at this claim.
The Nation's Report Card
O'Rourke's campaign pointed to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which falls under the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.
The center tracks the performance of U.S. students through the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The results are presented in The Nation's Report Card. The assessment is the longest running assessment nationally that gauges students' knowledge and skills.
The assessment is administered to a sample of students nationally. Students, teachers, and administrators also complete survey questionnaires for contextual information on students' classroom experiences.
The most recent data is from 2019. The 2019 reading assessment was given to approximately 150,600 Grade 4 students nationally, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress website.
For Texas, 7,400 fourth grade students participated in mathematics and 7,400 Texas fourth grade students participated in reading. The 2019 data indicates 30% of fourth-graders in Texas are at or above the "proficient" level, meaning 70% are below that level.
For context, the Texas fourth-grade reading data are similar to the national rate: 34% of fourth-graders nationally read at or above the proficient level in 2019.
"Proficient" means students can interpret texts and apply their understanding of the text. It "represents the goal for what all students should know," according to the governing board for the national assessment.
The national assessment has three ranges in its scoring system: basic, proficient, and advanced. Scoring basic on the assessment means students can make simple inferences and understand the main idea of a text, and 61% of Texas fourth-grade students scored at or above basic in reading.
Overall, that 30% would seem to match O'Rourke's numbers. However, how the federal government defines "proficient" does not mean that's how Texas education officials define it.
Grady Wilburn, a statistician for the National Center for Education Statistics, noted in an email that states have their own definition on what it means to read at grade level.
How Texas tests compare to the national assessment
The National Assessment of Educational Progress conducted an analysis in 2019 on how the proficiency criteria used by states compares to the national assessment, Catherine Lammert, assistant professor of reading methods at Texas Tech University's Teacher Education Department, wrote in a Jan. 5 email.
"Texas was listed as one of the states where grade-level proficiency standards exceeded the 'basic' standards of NAEP but does not surpass the 'proficient' level," Lammert wrote.
In 2019, most states' definitions of "proficient" actually fall within the "basic" category of the national assessment. Only four states — Illinois, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Oklahoma — had standards on par with the national proficient level. Virginia's standards were below the basic level.
In Texas, a student could simultaneously read at grade level by the state's definition and not be proficient by the national definition.
"Every state has their own curricular standards, and every state uses assessments aligned to those standards," Lammert wrote. "NAEP has been used for decades as a tool to compare rates of reading achievement across states. This is valuable. Since each state defines proficiency differently, by nature NAEP is a harder measure than some states’ assessments and an easier measure than others."
The results of the 2021 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, the Texas standardized tests, indicate 36% of Texas fourth grade students scored at or above grade level for reading.
The percentage of fourth-grade students reading at or above grade level declined from 2019 to 2021. In 2019, 43% of students were reading at or above grade level.
Lammert cautioned that statewide averages can hide that some classrooms face steeper challenges and inequalities in funding, access and support compared to others. Virtually all students in better-resourced, higher-income communities may read at grade level.
Lammert gave an example: at Casis Elementary School in the affluent Tarrytown neighborhood of West Austin, 97% of the students passed the STAAR reading exam, but in East Austin at Oak Springs, the average was 59%.
"In Texas, ZIP code determines opportunity," Lammert wrote.
In a series of criticisms against Gov. Greg Abbott, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke said, "Right now, in the average Texas fourth grade classroom, 7 out of 10 kids cannot read at grade level."
This matches data from the national assessment standard for proficient, as defined by the National Center for Education Statistics.
To get a different view, it's important to note that Texas has its own definition of reading at grade level.
Texas, alongside many other states, has lower standards than the national assessment.
But the state's own assessment results indicate 64% of fourth grade students did not meet grade level for reading in 2021, not far off from the national data.
We rate this claim Mostly True, meaning the statement is accurate but needs additional information or context.
"Houston!" Beto O'Rourke, YouTube, Streamed Nov. 19 (timestamp 7:07-7:16)
Emails from Gina Hinojosa, O'Rourke Campaign for Governor, Nov. 24 and Dec. 22, 2021
John C. Moritz and Madlin Mekelburg, "Beto O'Rourke announces campaign for Texas governor," Nov. 15, 2021
Email from National Center for Education Statistics statistician Grady Wilburn, Nov. 24 and 26, and Jan. 19
National Center for Education Statistics, "Intended Meaning of NAEP"
National Center for Education Statistics, "Reading"
National Center for Education Statistics, "Texas Overview"
National Center for Education Statistics, "Mapping State Proficiency Standards"
National Center for Education Statistics, "Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: Results from the 2019 Reading and Mathematics Assessments," June 1, 2021
National Center for Education Statistics, "Data Tool: Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales 2007-2019" for Grade 4 Reading, last updated Wednesday Sept. 22, 2021
Texas Education Agency, "State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) Performance Labels and Policy Definitions."
Texas Education Agency, "TEA Releases Spring 2021 STAAR Grades 3-8 and End-of-Course Assessment Results; Outcomes for In-Person Learners Appreciably Higher Than for Those Who Were Remote," June 28, 2021
Texas Education Agency, "State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) Performance Labels and Policy Definitions," April 2017
Texas Education Agency, "STATE OF TEXAS ASSESSMENTS OF ACADEMIC READINESS Combined Summary Report: GRADE 4 READING," June 2021
TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY, "STATE OF TEXAS ASSESSMENTS OF ACADEMIC READINESS Summary Report GRADE 4 READING," June 2021
Email from Catherine Lammert, assistant professor at Texas Tech University's Department of Teacher Education, Jan. 5, 9, and 20, 2022
Austin Independent School District, "Oak Springs Elementary School."
Austin Independent School District, "Casis Elementary School."
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Fact-check: Are most Texas fourth-graders reading at grade level?