TEXAS (KAMR/KCIT) – Throughout the course of human history, mathematics has served as a literally universal language, making it possible for people to build civilizations, make scientific discoveries, and even travel into the stars. Math has sets of standardized rules and formulas that students all over the U.S. learn to use; however, it looks a little different in Texas.

While math is math and the numbers may not change, students in Texas learn it in a different standard than most other states. In fact, it’s illegal in Texas for students to have the same math standards as students in New Mexico, Louisiana, or most of the rest of the country.

How did that happen, and how is Texas math different?

Texas, TEKS, and Common Core

As noted in the Texas Journal of Literacy Education, the Lone Star State arrived early to the nationwide educational reform movement of the 1980s. Texas lawmakers had already required a reform to educational curriculum in the state two years before the movement gained national attention, and saw its first state-mandated and standardized curriculum – known as the “Essential Elements” – passed in 1984. By 1997 the curriculum standards were changed to become the “Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills,” which was meant to be more rigorous.

Meanwhile, in response to a 1983 report from the National Commission of Excellence in Education that said the U.S. had fallen behind internationally in education, lawmakers across the nation renewed efforts to standardize education, including with a focus on curriculum content and standards for students’ learning outcomes.

The Journal of Educational Foundations noted that the 1980s movement gave rise to multiple efforts to standardize education, including the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. In 2009, the Common Core State Standards were introduced, which aimed at establishing guidelines for what students should know in each grade level in language arts and mathematics.

By 2010, the CCSS Initiative was encouraging states across the U.S. to adopt the standards to try and establish consistent but flexible curriculum standards for the entire country, and the Department of Education also incentivized their adoption. 46 states initially agreed, with Kentucky as the first to do so in 2010. However, Texas, Alaska, Nebraska, and Virginia all refused.

As of 2023, according to the most recent education reports, 41 U.S. states have either fully or partially adopted CCSS. Texas has kept its TEKS standards for curriculum, which was last updated in 2012, and in 2011 passed House Bill 2923, which amended the state education code to ban the State Board of Education and school districts from meeting state standard requirements by using any national curriculum standards.

Texas rejecting common standards means that students in Texas now learn and are tested in mathematics differently from most of the rest of the U.S.

How is Texas math different?

Ironically, education experts have also pointed out that Texas mathematical standards aren’t too different from the common standards that are illegal in the state. The differences between the two are mostly found in actual curriculum focuses and instructional materials.

In Texas, the TEKS describes expectations for how students should demonstrate their understanding through seven Mathematical Process Standards, and the CCSS does so through eight Standards for Mathematical Practice.

Below is an at-a-glance comparison between the two sets of standards, which can seem as similar as their respective titles.

TEKS Mathematical Process StandardsCCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice
“Apply mathematics to problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.”Model with mathematics – “Students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.”
“Use a problem-solving model that incorporates analyzing given information, formulating a plan or strategy, determining a solution, justifying the solution, and evaluating the problem-solving process and the reasonableness of the solution.”Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them – “Start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution… plan a solution pathway… monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary… [and] check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, ‘Does this make sense?”
“Select tools, including real objects, manipulatives, paper and pencil, and technology as appropriate, and techniques, including mental math, estimation, and number sense as appropriate, to solve problems.”Use appropriate tools strategically – “Consider the available tools when solving a mathematical problem. These tools might include pencil and paper, concrete models, a ruler, a protractor, a calculator… They detect possible errors by strategically using estimation and other mathematical knowledge.”
“Communicate mathematical ideas, reasoning, and their implications using multiple representations, including symbols, diagrams, graphs, and language as appropriate.”Attend to precision – “Students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and… state the meaning of the symbols they choose…”
“Create and use representations to organize, record, and communicate mathematical ideas.”Reason abstractly and quantitatively – “Make sense of quantities and their relationships in problem situations… Quantitative reasoning entails habits of creating a coherent representation of the problem at hand; considering the units involved; attending to the meaning of quantities, not just how to compute them; and knowing and flexibly using different properties of operations and objects.”
“Analyze mathematical relationships to connect and communicate mathematical ideas.”Look for and make use of structure – “Look closely to discern a pattern or structure… They recognize the significance of an existing line in a geometric figure… They also can step back for an overview and shift perspective.”
“Display, explain, and justify mathematical ideas and arguments using precise mathematical language in written or oral communication.”Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others – “Understand and use stated assumptions, definitions, and previously established results in constructing arguments… They are able to analyze situations by breaking them into cases, and can recognize and use counterexamples. They justify their conclusions.”
Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning – “Notice if calculations are repeated, and look both for general methods and for shortcuts… They reasonably evaluate the reasonableness of their intermediate results.”

While the overall standards can seem very similar, due in part to both of them citing similar research during their development such as a 2001 study by the National Research Council. However, CCSS and TEKS vary in the timing and skills their related curriculum cover.

The specifics of each have different focuses, putting more emphasis on core concepts, skills, and applications involving different math subjects including:

  • CCSS:
    • Basic math operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division);
    • Ratios and proportional relationships with algebra and rational numbers; and
    • Linear algebra and linear functions.
  • TEKS:
    • Statistics;
    • Probability; and
    • Finance.

What this looks like can be exemplified in the different standards for mathematics in the third grade. In CCSS, third-grade students are expected to have in-depth studies and an understanding of multiplication and division, base ten place values, fractions, data measurement, and geometric shapes and measurement. Students also cover those subjects in TEKS but with more point-by-point directions on how they should learn those subjects within lessons and units, as well as an extra standard in place for financial literacy.

So, a third grader in Texas might be able to explain the concept of supply/demand and a savings plan, but a New Mexico third grader might have had more time in class to get a greater understanding of solving problems with time measurements or volume.

Another difference is that CCSS does not itself create its actual base of curriculum or instructional materials, only sets standards that those things should meet for language arts and mathematics so that states can collectively make and share those items and programs. CCSS supporters have said that this works to benefit the pursuit of collaboration and consistency between states and districts, with standards that provide better wording and specific broader goals while also allowing for flexibility.

Texas not only uses TEKS to set curriculum standards but the state also adopts specific curriculum and instructional materials that districts can use, instead of leaving those decisions entirely open. Because Texas provides the curriculum and materials as well as the standards for every grade and subject, TEKS supporters have said that it can be more valuable for educators due to its clarity, comprehensiveness, and specific guidance.

In the end, Texas students may learn some more mathematical concepts a little earlier than the rest of the U.S., but with less in-depth study time spent on them and more specific directions for individual lesson units. This means that while Texas students have pretty consistent timing and curriculum across the state, and the same overall goal for greater day-to-day problem-solving skills as the rest of the U.S., they may also be speaking the language of mathematics in a different dialect or fluency level than their peers.