Teachers, students voice frustration with DISD; Informal survey reveals hopes and concerns

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The state comptroller’s report on Dallas schools starts with 908 pages of financial analysis and management critiques. It ends with 120 pages of voices from the classroom.

Stuck in appendixes at the end of the two-volume document are the complaints and concerns of more than 2,000 11th- and 12th-grade students and nearly 800 teachers.

Their responses to a voluntary questionnaire late last year offer a rare glimpse into classroom life, where concerns run more toward drugs in the hallways, old textbooks and crumbling schoolhouses and less toward growing bureaucracy and overstocked warehouses.

The comments in the unscientific survey were not uniformly negative. Teachers, for example, gave mostly positive reviews to the district’s academic programs, including high marks for reading and math initiatives. Students also ranked several academic programs highly, including social studies and science.

But, overall, the comments show a frustrated teacher corps and students who wish their schools were better.

“At one point in my life, I never wanted to be anything other than a teacher,” one student wrote. “Yet I see what the schools are becoming, and it has changed my attitude.”

Said one teacher: “Mediocrity and surviving until the next day is the norm. We are losing our best and brightest students and teachers.”

Superintendent Mike Moses said through his spokeswoman Tuesday that he would not respond to elements of the comptroller’s study until he has a chance to review it in detail. The survey was conducted shortly before Dr. Moses took office in January.

Among the findings: Most teachers consider the district’s administration inefficient. Only a third of responding teachers said the district is meeting the needs of students, whether they’re headed for college or a job. Fewer than a quarter of them agreed with the statement that “highly qualified teachers fill job
openings.”

Among student responses, fewer than half of the respondents consider their teachers “high quality.” About half said they feel safe and secure at school. Half say drugs are a problem in the district.

The questionnaires were conducted as part of the Texas School Performance Review, unveiled Monday, in which the comptroller’s office recommended 193 ways to save money and streamline operations.

Betty Ressel, manager of the report, said state officials find the surveys helpful in identifying different points of view on key topics.

Respondents participated only if they wanted and represented only a fraction of all teachers and students, although the racial and ethnic makeup of students roughly matched the district as a whole. There are about 160,000 students and 10,000 teachers in the district. The office surveyed teachers by mail and questioned students in their classrooms.

Nevertheless, state officials and others say, the survey results provide a window into the problems that frustrate those involved with education.

“It’s one of the best ways to get an idea what the climate is in the schools,” Ms. Ressel said.

In addition to multiple-choice responses to a battery of questions, teachers and students were asked to write anonymous comments about the state of life in the district.

The teachers who responded showed little support for the district’s school board and administrators. Fewer than a fifth said board members listen to the opinions and desires of others. Even fewer said the board had a good image in the community or were willing to call district administration “efficient.” More than two-thirds consider the student-teacher ratio in DISD classes unreasonable.

“I have 170 students on a block schedule,” one teacher wrote. “My smallest class has 27 students. It is difficult to deliver quality education under those circumstances.”

Comments like that, combined with very low ratings for the district’s salary and health insurance plans, make it clear that responding teachers are unhappy with the state of the district.

“I wish I could say this is surprising, but it’s not,” said Aimee Bolender, vice president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators. “Morale is clearly very low.”

A majority of teachers and students called vandalism a problem. Most teachers and more than a third of students said gangs are a problem.

And when there are consequences for actions, nearly half of responding teachers and students said there was not “fair and equitable discipline for misconduct.”

A significant number of students focused on facilities problems at their schools. “Our school can get really cold to where it is uncomfortable to learn,” one wrote. “I go to a nice school, but the restrooms stay nasty and locked all the time,” another wrote.

“The walls are separating and the doors can no longer be shut properly because of the settling of the building,” wrote another student. “The band hall for example is literally falling apart. One wall is just about fallen down.”

Ms. Ressel said gathering the data was not easy. In November, officials tried to survey students by mailing questionnaires to 657 randomly selected juniors and seniors. But only three or four surveys were returned, Ms. Ressel said.

“I suppose it wasn’t a high priority for them,” she said. “They must have viewed it as junk mail.”

Officials had to recover by going into high schools and asking students whether they were willing to fill out surveys during class time.

The comptroller’s office had somewhat better luck surveying teachers by mail. It sent out 2,945 surveys and got 781 back, a response rate Ms. Ressel said was typical.

Many respondents expressed a fear for the district’s future.

“The problem with our school is that no one cares anymore,” a student wrote. “Teachers lack the passion they once had for teaching. When the teachers don’t care, the students don’t either.”

“We’re in trouble,” one teacher wrote. “Our future rests in the hands of a divided school board, an interim superintendent, pressured principals and overwhelmingly tired teachers.”

In January, after the surveys were conducted, Dr. Moses became superintendent, leading some in the district to be more optimistic about DISD’s future.

“If you had this same survey today, I’m sure the results would be more positive,” Ms. Bolender said. “Teachers definitely feel there’s more cooperation going on between the board and the superintendent.”

Dwindling incentive: Less pay has fewer teachers pursuing master’s degrees

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 13A

For decades, it has been a deal that teachers have been willing to make.

They invest time and money to earn a master’s degree. In exchange, they get prestige, better teaching skills and higher pay.

But in Texas, fewer teachers are agreeing to the bargain as the incentives to obtain a master’s degree have diminished or, in some cases, disappeared.

Consider:

*The percentage of teachers with advanced college degrees has declined steadily since at least 1991.

*Teachers outside the state are almost twice as likely to have a master’s degree as those in Texas.

*Many of the state’s graduate education programs have seen enrollment plummet.

Some educators say students are the ones who suffer.

“We know districts are hurting for money, but extra education for teachers is a way for children to improve,” said Sarah Burkhalter, assistant dean of teacher education at the University of Texas at Arlington.

In the 1991-92 school year, 30.4 percent of Texas teachers had advanced degrees – already well below the national average. Since then, the figure has dropped. By 1999-2000, 24.8 percent of teachers in the state had at least a master’s.

In 1993, the most recent year for which federal figures are available, 47.3 percent of U.S. teachers had advanced degrees. Other estimates show that the national number has continued to rise.

Educators blame a variety of factors for the decline. As Texas’ population has soared, the state has been forced to hire more young, inexperienced teachers, many of whom have not had a chance to get further education.

But many teachers put the blame squarely on pay. Substantial raises they used to get for their extra academic credentials have largely disappeared, they say.

“In most districts, there’s absolutely no reward for getting a master’s degree,” said Jim Kracht, associate dean of teacher education at Texas A&M University.

Until the mid-1980s, the Texas Education Agency’s state salary schedule set a higher minimum pay rate for teachers with advanced degrees. For example, in 1981-82, a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree was guaranteed a salary of at least $10,230 annually. If that same teacher had a master’s degree, the guarantee went up to $10,950 – a 7 percent increase.

In addition, districts could choose to pay salaries above that state minimum, and many teachers got raises of 10 percent or more for getting a master’s.

New pay scale

In 1985, the State Board of Education stopped guaranteeing extra pay for extra education while switching to a new pay scale. The switch came with a new incentive pay plan called the Career Ladder, which some districts used to continue giving more money for advanced degrees.

Leaving incentive pay up to districts left it open to cuts in times of tight budgets.

Other payroll concerns have fed the trend in the last decade.

For example, the growing teacher shortage has pressured districts to raise salaries at the bottom of the pay scale. The higher salaries for teachers with advanced degrees didn’t keep up.

The result: many Texas districts – particularly in rural areas – now give no raises at all for more education. Those that do, including most of those in the Dallas area, usually offer raises of 2 percent or 3 percent.

“Beginning salaries have gone up, but there’s little incentive to improve once you’re in the field,” Dr. Burkhalter said. “It’s cheaper to hire new teachers out of college than to develop the ones you have.”

Dallas schools give a starting teacher with a master’s degree $1,000 more annually, although a salary structure under consideration by district officials would cut that to $877. In Lewisville, the pay boost for starting teachers with advanced degrees is $600 a year.

For many teachers, that isn’t enough incentive to make the investment in a master’s. Getting the degree usually takes least three summers of a teacher’s time and can cost $4,000 to $8,000 at a public university, more at a private school.

“It takes time and it takes money, and if there’s not much reward, where’s the incentive?” said Dr. Burkhalter, who previously oversaw teacher education for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Performance levels

The drop in advanced degrees is important because most research has shown a positive connection between better-educated teachers and better student performance, said John Stansell, associate dean for teacher education at UNT.

Teachers who have taken master’s courses are quick to point out the new educational theories and strategies they have learned, and how they have been able to use them in the classroom.

“I’m much more sensitive now to the fact that different people learn differently,” said Theresa Biggs, who teaches English at Plano East High School. “Now I try to touch on all the different learning styles in my lessons.”

Starting teachers in Plano earn $2,000 more if they have a master’s degree.

Dr. Stansell said that, as districts come under increasing pressure to improve students’ test scores, the improved instruction that comes from a master’s program could make the investment worthwhile.

“It makes me a better role model for my students if I’m still learning,” said Brandy Kerbow, a fourth-grade teacher at Plano’s Haun Elementary. University officials say there are fewer teachers such as Ms. Kerbow. They note lagging enrollment in some master’s programs for teachers.

“Some of the old-timers here talk about having a master’s class of 45 students,” UNT’s Dr. Stansell said. “I haven’t seen anything that size lately. Now, it ranges from six or seven to maybe 20.”

At Texas A&M, the Department of Curriculum and Instruction might have had 250 or more master’s students in the late 1980s, Dr. Kracht said. Now there are 35 to 40. “We have seen a steady and consistent decline over the years,” he said.

District programs

Districts have tried to offset some of the decline with increased professional development programs, including in-service days and other training days. But few districts across the state have made the commitment to getting their teachers graduate education, Dr. Kracht said.

Plano is one of the few. Six years ago, the district began working with UNT to offer a master’s program especially for Plano teachers. The district has backed off its initial rule that all teachers must pursue a master’s. Still, the district pays all tuition for its teachers.

Since the program began, 247 Plano teachers have gotten master’s degrees with the district’s financial help. District officials see it as an important marketing tool for attracting teachers.

“We believe there’s a value in what a teacher with a master’s degree brings to the classroom,” said Danny Modisette, Plano’s deputy superintendent. “We think we’re getting something for our money, both in content knowledge and teaching strategies.”

Other districts have followed Plano’s lead and started their own master’s programs in cooperation with area universities. UNT has started a similar program in McKinney and is in discussions to start one in the Northwest school district.

“The bottom line is that the more education that we can provide for our teachers, the more impact we can have on students,” said Donna Criswell, Northwest’s executive director for curriculum and instruction.

UTA’s graduate enrollment has actually increased substantially in the last year, largely because of a commitment to creative scheduling, online courses, and other ways to bring in as many teachers as possible. “Teachers don’t reach the peak of their abilities until they have experience and education like a master’s,” Dr. Burkhalter said.

Dallas County could see truancy courts by the fall

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 29A

Dallas County is working to create four courts that will handle the thousands of truancy cases generated each year by chronically absent Dallas schoolchildren, officials said.

The new courts, two of which could debut as soon as October, will be designed to ensure that truancy cases are heard by a judge within days. Now, some cases languish for up to 18 months before they are heard.

“It doesn’t do anybody any good if a year or more goes by before a child is brought before the judge,” said County Commissioner Mike Cantrell.

Studies have long shown a direct link between skipping school and dropping out, and officials see early intervention in chronic truants as a way to reduce the size of the dropout problem. A recent study conducted for The Dallas Morning News estimated that the dropout rate in Dallas schools is 28 percent.

Truancy cases are a significant part of the caseload for justices of the peace. As of May 25, the Dallas Independent School District alone had filed 14,484 truancy cases during the school year. That was nearly 50 percent more cases than five years ago.

“Truancy is the early warning sign that problems are cropping up in a child’s life,” Mr. Cantrell said. “If you get to that child early on, you can correct the situation. But otherwise, they get so far behind they say, ‘Hey, I’m out of here.'”

Mr. Cantrell said the new courts would be led by specially appointed judges. That would lighten the docket for justices of the peace, a group that is about to shrink. On Oct. 1, three of the 14 peace justices will have their positions eliminated as part of restructuring approved by commissioners this month.

Mr. Cantrell, who served eight years as a justice of the peace, said most of his time on the bench was spent handling truancy cases. Other judges whose jurisdiction included parts of DISD had a similar workload, he said.

“This has been under discussion for several years,” said Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson. “But it became more critical when the decision was made to reduce the number of justices of the peace…. In some areas of the county, where the schools are very active, it has become a very significant part of the caseload.”

Justices of the peace handle truancy cases in various ways, which sometimes lead to widely varying backlogs. Some hear cases within three or four weeks of when they’re filed; others take a year or more.

“This will create consistency across the county, so everyone is treated in the same, efficient way,” said H.B. Bell, DISD’s assistant superintendent for dropout prevention.

The truancy courts will be highly computerized. Dr. Bell said the goal is to get cases before a judge within 10 days.

The locations of the new courts have not been set, but officials said two likely locations are on Polk Street in southern Dallas and at the North Dallas Government Center on Marsh Lane. Mr. Cantrell said he hopes the first two will open by October.

Because of state law governing the jurisdiction over truancy cases, the judges would probably be appointed initially by the city of Dallas. Mr. Cantrell said the county will probably ask the Legislature to allow commissioners or the county juvenile board to make appointments during the next session.

Most details of the arrangement are still being discussed, including how the cost of the courts will be divided.

The negotiations involve only DISD and the county. Dr. Bell said other county school districts would continue to use justice of the peace courts, but they could eventually be allowed to use the special truancy courts.

The arrangement being proposed is similar to one that went into effect in April in Fort Worth. There, a courthouse next to Eastern Hills High School handles the district’s truancy cases after officials determined Tarrant County’s justice of the peace system was too overwhelmed.

“We’ve had a lot of success,” said Cecilia Speer, Fort Worth’s executive director of student affairs. “The kids understand when they’re brought before the judge that we mean business.”

She said the wait for a truancy hearing in Fort Worth has been reduced from a month or more, on average, to less than two weeks.

There is also a financial incentive for Dallas schools to cut down on truancy. The state funds school districts in large part based on their average daily attendance.

Dr. Bell said a 1 percent increase in DISD’s attendance rate would mean an extra $8 million a year from the state.

TAKS season a certainty for students in ’03; Renamed TAAS II tested TEA creativity

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Let the silly puns begin.

After months of contemplation, state education officials have quietly settled on the name of the standardized test that will replace the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, in 2003.

And the winner is…the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. That’s TAKS, as in “tax” or “tacks.”

“People are going to hear ‘TAKS’ and think of either giving money to the government or those sharp, pointy things that hurt when you step on them,” said Mike Carr, director of Namestormers, an Austin-based brand consulting firm.

“The kids, in particular, I’m sure will pick up on the sharp-pointy-object idea.”

TAKS is the Test Formerly Known as TAAS II. The next-generation test will be linked to a tougher set of curriculum standards – the similarly acronymed TEKS, or Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.

It took months to come up with the name, said Adrienne Sobolak, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. TEA employees were asked to suggest ideas, which a group of top agency officials narrowed to two finalists: TAKS and TASK, the Texas Assessment of Skills and Knowledge.

In the end, officials decided that “skills and knowledge” would be confusing because Texas was already on record as promoting “knowledge and skills” in the TEKS, Ms. Sobolak said.

If anyone has a reason to be upset by the new test name, it’s the group that, until Monday, was the biggest TAKS around: The American Keeshond Society, a 24-year-old group dedicated to the breed of dog.

“People looking for information about the test on the Internet might find us, and the other way around, but people will figure it out,” said group secretary Sharon Buethner, who lives with her seven keeshonden – Ethan, Jody, Boppers, Jenny, Patty, Britta and Martin – in Fargo, N.D.

All-year schooling fading out; Some Texas districts don’t see benefits

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

A decade ago, it was the wave of the future. Now, the year-round calendar is becoming a thing of the past, at least in Texas.

The idea was simple: Sharply cut back on the traditional summer break, and students will forget less and learn more. For a time in the 1990s, it was hard to find a large school district that wasn’t at least considering a move to year-round schooling.

But in the last four years, more than two-thirds of the Texas schools that had adopted year-round calendars switched back. Nearly every major school district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has joined in the retreat, and many educators aren’t sad to see the year-round calendar go.

“I’m happy about it,” said Lucy Davila-Hakemack, principal at Reagan Elementary in Oak Cliff, one of six DISD schools switching back to the traditional calendar this fall. One charter school, Allen Elementary in West Dallas, will remain on the schedule. “There was no proof it helped with test scores, or attendance, or anything.”

The number of year-round schools in Texas peaked at 359 in 1996-97. By last fall, there were 126.

It appears the number will be lower when the new school year begins. In addition to the Dallas schools changing back, a move approved by the school board in March, Denton ISD eliminated its only year-round program last fall. Last month, Austin ISD decided its eight year-round schools would revert next year.

Year-round schedules have remained somewhat popular with schools targeting specialized populations, such as charter schools or campuses that serve the severely disabled. But it appears that by fall, there will be only a handful of mainstream campuses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on a year-round schedule.

In some ways, to even call the remaining campuses “year-round” is a bit of a misnomer. In Texas, schools that have a calendar only slightly longer than the traditional one – say, one that starts school a couple of weeks earlier and ends it a couple of weeks later – are considered “year-round,” even if it still has a summer break of two months or more. Dallas’ remaining year-round campuses finished school Thursday.

For those who promote year-round education, the gains it promises are substantial: better student performance, higher morale for teachers and fewer weeks spent re-teaching material learned the year before.

Year-round schedules generally feature multiweek breaks, usually in November and March. During those breaks, students having academic difficulties can be kept in class for an extra week or two of tutoring and instruction.

“The improvements seen have been substantial,” said Marilyn Stenvall, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education.

While the numbers have tailed off in Texas, year-round education continues to grow in popularity nationwide, she said, with more than 3,000 schools on the new calendar. Ms. Stenvall said she didn’t know why Texas, which had been on the vanguard of the trend, was pulling back.

Some Texas schools have found success with the longer schedules. Socorro ISD in El Paso has all its schools on a year-round calendar and has been named a “Recognized” district by the Texas Education Agency, despite a largely disadvantaged student population.

Socorro went year-round in 1991, in part to use buildings more efficiently by rotating students in and out on staggered schedules. But the academic benefits became clear within a few years, officials say.

“We were not considered a strong academic school district in the early 1990s,” said Sue Shook, the district’s associate superintendent for instructional services. “Today, the TAAS scores are high, more kids are going to university, and we’re considered the premier district in the county.”

The success has helped the district pass a bond issue to build schools, making the old rotating year-round calendar unnecessary. The district has no plans to move away from the longer schedule.

“It’s done a great deal for our community,” Dr. Shook said. “We’re in an area with a lot of poverty, and there aren’t a lot of activities available for children outside of school. Parents like knowing the school is providing quality activities for a longer portion of the year.”

But most districts have come to see year-round calendars as more trouble than they are worth. Ms. Davila-Hakemack, the Reagan principal, said there was never evidence that the schedule helped students learn more.

The longer schedule was more expensive than the traditional one, she said, in part because the school had to be air-conditioned for longer in the hotter months.

If the longer calendar had meant students were being taught on more days, it might have done some good, she said. But Dallas’ year-round calendar doesn’t include more instructional days – the days are just more spread out.

Another problem: Because the two school calendars in DISD ended at different times, students in year-round schools could not attend summer school.

“I begged and pleaded to try to get a summer-school session for some of our students, but we couldn’t,” Ms. Davila-Hakemack said.

That lack of coordination with traditional schools is one of the reasons Fort Worth schools switched back most year-round schools a year ago.

“Quite frankly, year-round education is a good concept, but regrettably, it never caught on to the extent that nearly all schools could do it,” said Superintendent Tom Tocco. “I think it’s very important to have virtually all of your schools on the same calendar.

“We almost had to have two different staff development schedules, for example. And because they were the smaller group, the year-round schools always felt they were receiving second-rate professional services from the district.”

In Austin, officials on each of the district’s eight year-round campuses made the decision to switch calendars this spring. One of the biggest reasons, officials said, was that the Texas Education Agency plans to change the time of year students on year-round campuses take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).

This spring, as in previous years, students on year-round campuses could take the TAAS several weeks later than those on traditional campuses. But starting in 2002, the special year-round date will be eliminated as part of the move to the next generation of TAAS testing. That would have left fewer days of test preparation for students in Austin’s year-round schools.

But those drawbacks aren’t nearly enough to overcome the worth of a longer calendar, according to the principal of one of North Texas’ few remaining year-round schools.

“The extra time for learning reinforcement can have a big effect,” said Alice Clark, principal of Motley Elementary in Mesquite. Motley has been repeatedly rated exemplary by the TEA, despite a student population that is 54 percent economically disadvantaged.

Ms. Clark said that teachers like the midsemester breaks the longer schedule allows. Tutoring during those breaks allows weaker students to succeed, she said.

“Our parents like the year-round schedule,” she said.

Zornes elected DISD president; Trustees note 8-0 vote departs from past conflict

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 30A

Ken Zornes was elected the new president of the Dallas Independent School District’s board of trustees Thursday night.

The board’s 8-0 vote was a sign that the district has moved beyond the chaos that marked recent years, trustees said.

The two previous transitions of power on the board – from Kathleen Leos to Hollis Brashear and from Mr. Brashear to Roxan Staff – were engineered with the support of only five on the nine-member board.

“I’ve been on the board for nine years, and this is the first election I can remember that wasn’t 5-4, 6-3,” Mr. Brashear said. “I think that shows the maturity of the board is changing. … This is the first time without the fighting and making a scene for the cameras.”

Ms. Staff said she had decided several months ago that she would not seek re-election to the post she had held for two years, in part because of the time the job required.

“My husband has a new name for Ken Zornes: ‘My best friend,'” she joked after the meeting.

Mr. Zornes, who has represented North Dallas’ District 1 for the last two years, said that he was taking over the board at an opportune time.

Board members have been pleased with Superintendent Mike Moses, who started in January after a string of unsuccessful district leaders. Test scores released last month showed substantial gains for district students.

“I feel very fortunate to have been asked to take this position under our current superintendent,” he said. “It’s like playing for the Yankees now.”

Other posts

Also Thursday, District 9 trustee Ron Price was elected first vice president and District 8’s Kathleen Leos was picked as second vice president. District 4 trustee George Williams was elected secretary.

Only trustee Rafael Anchia was not present for the votes. He is traveling overseas.

The previous first vice president, Se-Gwen Tyler, lost in a runoff Saturday. Her successor, Texas A&M-Commerce lecturer Llewellyn Blackburn, was sworn in Thursday night.

Schools brace for tougher TAAS, lower passing rates; Higher standards make it ‘kind of scary’ for districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

For many parents and school officials in North Texas, last week brought the latest in a long line of good news: Passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills went up, just as they have every year.

School leaders were quick to praise the students, teachers and administrators who worked to boost scores once again.

But many know they won’t be able to enjoy these gains for much longer. Starting in 2003, when a tougher version of TAAS goes into effect, scores are likely to reverse course, if only temporarily. That same year, the state’s push to end social promotion goes into effect, keeping some students from continuing on to the next grade.

Last month, state officials sent school districts estimates of how many of their students would have passed the TAAS this year if they were taking the 2003 version of the test. Passing rates plummeted, sometimes by 20 percentage points or more.

Districts are preparing for the backlash they expect in two years.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Michael Killian, Lewisville’s deputy superintendent. “I don’t think that a lot of legislators really realize the potential impact of what could happen in 2003. I don’t know if they realize how many kids will suddenly be in trouble. For some of their sake, I hope it’s not an election year.”

The new tests, tentatively called TAAS II, will mean more testing in more subjects. The new test will complete Texas’ transition away from its old state curriculum standards, known as the Essential Elements, to the new, more rigorous Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).

TAAS II will require more of students at all grade levels from third grade to the exit-level test. That exit test will move from 10th to 11th grade, and students will still have to pass it to receive a high school diploma. The exit-level test, for example, will test students on algebra, chemistry and physics.

TAAS II is still in development, so it’s hard to estimate how difficult it will be to pass. But state officials estimate that any student who gets 70 percent of the questions correct on the current TAAS is a strong bet to be able to pass TAAS II. (Students are now required to answer anywhere between 45 percent and 70 percent of questions correctly, depending on the grade level and test being given.)

Unfortunately, those students aren’t as common as districts would like. State passing rates for all tests would drop between 15 percentage points and 30 percentage points in each grade if the 70 percent standard were applied.

“We know we still have a lot of work to do,” said Diane Frost, language arts and testing coordinator for Carroll ISD.

TAAS scores have always been a high-stakes game for schools and districts, whose state accountability ratings depend in large part on their students’ scores. Besides the exit-level TAAS, which is required for graduation, third-, fifth- and eighth-graders will have to pass portions of TAAS II during the next decade to advance to the next grade.

Because of those higher stakes, districts have already started crunching numbers to estimate how their students will do come 2003.

“It’s extremely difficult because we don’t know the exact content of the test,” said Michael Strozeski, Garland ISD’s executive director of planning, research and evaluation. “We don’t know how the questions are going to be asked. We don’t know how hard it’s going to be. We just know it’s going to be harder.”

Districts have been working to prepare for the new test since it was announced. While the test’s exact details are still unclear, the state-required skills they are based on took effect in 1998.

“The state has published the new objectives. They aren’t a big secret,” said Lori Nebelsick-Gullett, Richardson’s executive director of student performance.

In Arlington, officials are getting ready to train teachers on the new objectives.

“When you have a higher standard, revised objectives and a new exam all at one time, it complicates things,” said Marcelo Cavazos, Arlington’s associate superintendent for instruction.

Bill Adkins, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Allen, said the district will send out a newsletter to parents next year, explaining how state assessment testing will change and how it might affect scores. He said officials aren’t worried about a decline.

“As long as our teachers are teaching the curriculum that the state requires, it doesn’t matter if it’s TAAS II or TAAS III or TAAS IV or whatever,” he said.

The state’s estimates show there is still much work to be done. The students who just finished eighth grade in Texas will be juniors in 2004, the second year the exit-level TAAS II is given. But they’ll be the first class that will be required to pass the tests to get a high school diploma.

This year, eighth-graders took tests in each of the subject areas that will be included in TAAS II. Only 68 percent of students passed all five tests – reading, math, writing, science, and social studies.

But if they had been required to get 70 percent of questions correct on each test, only 39 percent would have passed.

Dr. Killian and others said that preparing parents for lower scores will be one of the major tasks of the next few years, particularly in districts with historically high scores, where the community might protest sudden declines.

“I think you begin communicating with parents now, saying this is a standard you want your child to reach,” Dr. Frost said.

In some suburban districts, the progress has grown slower in recent years, as districts have reached passing rates in the 90s and have less room to improve.

“No matter what we do, the passing scores will be lower than they currently are,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. “And that alone will be a harsh reality for a lot of people.”

Staff writers Katie Menzer and Jason Trahan contributed to this report.