Social studies may hurt school ratings; TAAS scores in subject count for first time, so some expect to slip

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Jerry Cook has a PR job to do in the coming months.

The Duncanville school superintendent must explain to the public why his district will drop from “recognized” to “acceptable” in the state’s eyes, even though nearly all of its standardized test scores improved this year.

“It’s frustrating, but I hope parents will understand why,” Dr. Cook said.

The reason Duncanville will tumble: For the first time, results on the social studies portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills count toward district accountability ratings.

Traditionally, social studies scores have been the lowest among the five subjects on the TAAS. But until now, it hasn’t mattered much for districts – they were graded only on how their students did in reading, writing and math.

State officials predict that the number of Texas schools rated exemplary or recognized might drop this year for the first time, primarily because of social studies.

Based on this year’s preliminary TAAS results, Duncanville is one of at least three area districts expecting to drop a notch. Ennis and Ferris, both recognized last year, probably will also fall to acceptable.

“We just didn’t get the job done,” said Ferris Superintendent Larry Hairgrove. “It’s one score standing in our way.”

Those ratings may be simple adjectives, but they can have a big impact on communities. Homebuilders use the ratings to sell houses, and chambers of commerce use them to attract businesses. If a district gets a good rating, it often shows up on office stationery and marquees around the district.

The TAAS tests social studies only in eighth grade, which means the actions of a few teachers and students can affect an entire district.

“We’ve got seven teachers in the district who teach eighth-grade social studies,” Duncanville’s Dr. Cook said. “That’s a pretty high-stakes test for them.”

When districts learned in 2000 about the change, they began putting more emphasis on the subject, bringing in consultants, training teachers and trying to prepare for the added pressure.

Largely, it worked. The statewide passing rate for eighth-grade social studies jumped from 76 percent to 83 percent this year – the largest increase on any test in any grade.

“It is interesting: Whatever you put in the accountability system gets attention,” said Criss Cloudt, associate commissioner for accountability reporting and research at the Texas Education Agency.

In 2000, statewide social studies passing rates were 18 percentage points behind reading, 13 behind writing and 19 behind math. This year, those gaps closed to 11, 2 and 9.

North Texas’ two largest districts, Dallas and Fort Worth, experienced huge gains in social studies passing rates this year: 21 points in Dallas, 17 in Fort Worth.

“Traditionally, kids weren’t told social studies was a test they had to pass,” said Alecia Cobb, Dallas’ interim associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

The Dallas Independent School District estimated at the start of the school year that without improved TAAS scores, social studies would cause 11 of its campuses to be rated low-performing, the worst possible rating. An additional 15 schools were deemed at risk of receiving that rating.

After a massive “emergency intervention” campaign, none of the schools is on track to be rated low-performing. The preliminary results show that 77 percent of DISD eighth-graders passed the social studies test, up from 56 percent last year.

Such gains didn’t mean much to Ennis and Ferris. Their social studies passing rates increased this year, but both fell short of the “recognized” standard of 80 percent.

“We’re so close!” said Kathy Cikanek, Ennis’ assistant superintendent for instruction and assessment.

Ennis came tantalizingly close to the bar: 79 percent. “For so long, elementary teachers focused on reading and math, and it takes time to get past that,” she said.

But Ms. Cikanek has hope. The TAAS results that have been released to districts are not exactly what will be used to finalize school ratings.

These results include all students who took the test, but the rating system only counts students who were in a district from Oct. 26 through the end of the school year. That’s to avoid penalizing a district for the performance of any weak students who moved into the district a couple of weeks before the test.

So if a handful of Ennis’ eighth-graders get squeezed out when records are examined, that 79 percent could move up a hair, and Ennis could be recognized again.

In any event, Duncanville, Ennis and Ferris said they’ll focus on social studies even more next year in an attempt to raise scores.

In a way, the social studies boost shows the strengths and weaknesses of the standards-based education reforms Texas leaders have pushed for two decades.

Proponents of reform argue that if the state tests students and judges districts on their performance, schools will find a way to teach students more. This year’s gains in social studies scores support that thesis.

Opponents, however, argue that the accountability system shifts too much emphasis to some subjects and away from others. If, as Texas did until this year, schools are only judged on students’ performance in reading, writing and math, other subjects won’t get as much attention. That was the cry of social studies teachers throughout the 1990s.

“Because this was going to be the first year for social studies, we considered it a high-stakes test we needed to respond to,” said Hector Montenegro, Dallas’ deputy superintendent for instructional services. “If it had not been so urgent, we probably would not have responded so aggressively.”

Science is expected to be added to the accountability system in 2004. But there are no immediate plans to add any other subjects.

Because the state is introducing an untested standardized test next year, education agency officials are considering carrying over this year’s district ratings – due out in August – until 2004. They say the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, will add too many unknown variables in its first year and could make sensibly rating schools difficult.

Of course, that’s little consolation to superintendents in districts affected by social studies scores. They could be stuck with their “acceptable” tags for two years instead of one.

“We’ll try to explain to parents and the public that it’s just a matter of one test, and that we’re working on it,” said Dr. Hairgrove, the Ferris superintendent. “It just gives us another goal to meet.”

Schools may get ratings reprieve; Dumping TAAS, adopting TAKS will complicate scoring

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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After years of preaching the benefits of the state’s school district rating system, officials are considering putting it on hiatus next year.

The uncertainties surrounding a new state test debuting next year – the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS – may make judging school districts too difficult in 2003, state officials said. Instead, they may just hold over ratings that will be issued in August.

“The system we’re coming up with for 2003 won’t be like anything people have seen before,” said Adrienne Sobolak, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman. “And it will probably never be done again.”

Officials said that final decisions had not been made and that an official announcement was expected in the next two weeks.

Since 1994, the TEA has rated schools and school districts primarily on their students’ performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS. The current ratings system places schools in one of four main categories. From best to worst, they are: exemplary, recognized, acceptable and low-performing.

Each category is triggered by a certain passing rate on the TAAS. For instance, if 80 percent of a school’s students pass each section of the TAAS and certain other conditions are met, that school will be rated “recognized.”

But this spring was the last statewide administration of the TAAS. Next year, it will be replaced by the TAKS, which is widely expected to be significantly tougher. State officials have predicted that passing rates will drop statewide once the TAKS is given next spring.

Because Texas students have never taken a real TAKS test, it’s difficult to specify what the appropriate rating standards will be. The State Board of Education won’t decide until November what score students will need to pass the test. It’s undetermined what passing rates schools or districts would need to achieve certain ratings, and it’s unclear what those ratings would be.

2 systems at once

Settling many of those issues will become more manageable once the first TAKS results come in next spring and state officials are better able to judge what standards to set for 2004.

Until then, they’re in a bind.

“In effect, we’re designing two accountability systems at the same time,” Ms. Sobolak said. “One is going to be based on the TAKS and will start in 2004. The other is a transitional system for 2003.”

Commissioner Felipe Alanis is considering several options, but Ms. Sobolak said the leading possibility was to simply carry over district ratings.

Those ratings, due in August, are based on the TAAS tests taken this year.

In other words, if a district is rated “recognized” this August, it would remain “recognized” until new ratings come out in 2004.

Officials are also considering issuing a simple “pass/fail” rating for individual schools so that troubled schools could be designated by the state and targeted for assistance.

TEA officials considered eliminating district and school ratings for 2003 – a “ratings holiday,” as the idea was termed. But that plan was rejected when it became clear that state law requires that districts, at a minimum, be given some sort of rating. The law does not, however, say how those ratings must be calculated, officials said.

State officials have long known that switching to a new test in 2003 would pose unique problems. “We were frequently having conversations about ’03,” said Jim Nelson, the former commissioner who is now in private industry in Dallas. “We were focused on finding a way to make a smooth transition from one test to the other. And you can’t make a lot of the judgments you need to on a test without having some results in hand.”

The last time the state switched to a new test, in 1990, the state didn’t have an accountability system in place, Ms. Sobolak said.

For school leaders, having a one-year break in ratings will ease the transition to the new test.

“With two years before the next ratings, we’ll have the time to focus on any problems we have in the meantime,” said Duncanville Superintendent Jerry Cook.

Promotions at issue

Along with the TAKS debut, 2003 will be the first year of the state’s “social promotion” program. Under that law, third-graders who do not pass the reading portion of the TAKS will not be advanced to the fourth grade, though some exceptions apply.

Critics have argued that such a high-stakes decision shouldn’t be based on an unproven test such as TAKS in its first year.

Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, who is chairman of the House Public Education Committee, supported a bill in the last legislative session that would have pushed the initiative back one year. The House passed the bill, but the Senate did not vote on it.

“If our commissioner makes the decision that in fairness, we should not rank school districts using the new exam in its first year, it’s only fair that we not start hurting 9-year-olds based on that same test in its first year,” he said.

Home-schoolers join crowd; Graduation ceremonies for home-schoolers are catching on

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Home-schooled students miss out on many of the traditions of high school life: the football games, the homecoming dance, the high-stakes testing.

But they don’t have to miss out on graduation. An increasing number of home-schoolers are opting for caps, gowns, and all the pomp and circumstance of a public-school ceremony.

“It’s a rite of passage,” said Scott Newmann, a Dallas home-school parent whose son Scott III graduated in a six-student ceremony at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Cedar Hill last week. “In our culture, a graduation ceremony is a door into adulthood.”

“I’ve had one-on-one in almost everything else in my education, so it ties in well to have a one-on-one graduation ceremony,” his son said. “My mom’s been teaching me since grade one. She’s always been there, and now she’s giving me my diploma.”

Admittedly, these ceremonies aren’t what you’d find at Plano East or Skyline High. Like the educations they’re the capstone of, home-school graduations are more personal and take place in smaller settings.

“I’ve had so many people tell me that these are the best graduations they’ve ever seen,” said Betty May, vice president of Home School Texas, a Dallas group that organizes graduation ceremonies. “There are people who come because they know one person, but they end up crying for every single graduate.”

Numbers on the rise

When Ms. May and her husband started the area’s first graduation for home-schoolers 11 years ago, they could assemble only 16 students for the ceremony. This year, there are 27. And there are at least seven other ceremonies held annually in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

While the ceremonies differ, they all follow a basic pattern. They have a standard graduation speaker. But the central figures are the parents. One by one, the parents bring their children to the stage and talk for a few minutes about their abilities, struggles and accomplishments. Then, often teary-eyed, they confer a diploma ? sometimes homemade.

That kind of personal focus obviously is impossible at a 300-student ceremony at a large public high school.

Parents often aren’t the only ones crying.

“It’s usually pretty deep and has a real big impact on the people who hear it,” said Peter May, Ms. May’s son, who will graduate this month. “While the speaker’s nice, nobody usually remembers him. They remember the parents.”

Ten or 20 years ago, a graduating home-schooler might have had little more than a celebratory dinner with family. But the increasing popularity of formalized graduations is evident nationwide.

At Milligan’s, a mail-order company that sells diplomas, caps and gowns to home-schoolers, business is booming. “Four years ago, we might have sold 100 diplomas a year,” said Betty Lynn Milligan, owner of the Brewton, Ala., company. Now, it’s about 1,500.

A number of factors have fueled the increase. The largest is simple: There are more home-schoolers than ever before. National home-school groups estimate that 1.5 million children are being home-schooled.

About 300,000 Texas children are home-schooled, according to the Texas Home School Coalition. That’s more students than in the Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington school districts put together, and about four times as many as were home-schooled 10 years ago.

Movement maturing

Shifting demographics are also a factor. Ten years ago, the majority of home-schooled children were of elementary age. That’s primarily because many parents were just getting started with the movement, but also because some parents chose to enroll their children in standard schools once they reached high school age.

“Now, the movement is both growing and maturing,” said Tim Lambert, the Texas Home School Coalition’s president. “You’re seeing more people choosing home school for the long haul.”

Mr. Lambert said a home-school graduation ceremony last week in his hometown of Lubbock had 27 graduates. Last year, there were 20. And at the first ceremony 10 years ago, only one student graduated.

As the movement has grown, home-schoolers have become more accustomed to banding together for activities, whether that means a field trip to the zoo or graduation. There are now more than 20 home-school associations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone.

“Networking among families is a big part of home-schooling now,” said Laura Derrick, president of the National Home Education Network and an Austin home-schooler of two. “If parents want to do something together, they just organize it, invite others along and go.”

Under state law, home schools are considered unaccredited private schools, which means that each student is the one-person graduating class of a separate institution. That allows parents and students an unusual flexibility: They can shop among various graduation ceremonies and choose the one they like most.

“We looked around at what was available and picked the ceremony we liked the most,” said Cathy Turner, whose son Don David graduated in an 11-student ceremony last week. “Having a rite of passage is just as important for our kids as it is for kids in a public school.”

Texas has grown by degrees; 1990s population boom boosted state education levels, census data show

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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They came from all over the world – and they brought their diplomas with them.

The Texas population boom in the 1990s helped make the state more educated than ever, according to census data released Friday. The Dallas suburbs led the way.

“There were significant improvements all across the state,” said Steve Murdock, Texas’ state demographer. “But there are still real differences between the suburbs and the central cities and between the various regions of the state.”

In booming Collin County, 47 percent of the population had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2000. That’s the highest percentage in the state, and a sizable increase from 39 percent in 1990. (All of the educational attainment data released included only residents 25 and older.)

Other area counties weren’t far behind. Denton, Rockwall, Dallas and Tarrant counties ranked fifth, eighth, 13th and 15th among the state’s 254 counties.

For the fastest-growing communities, the raw numbers are borderline stunning.

In 1990, Frisco had 159 residents with graduate or professional degrees. In 2000, it had 2,663. That’s an increase of more than 1,500 percent. As a more recent example of that increase, the Frisco Bar Association now has 32 members. There was no Frisco Bar Association until it was founded three years ago, with four members.

“Before that, people thought, ‘It’s just a little country town, why on earth would they have a bar association?'” said Debby Mackoy, the association’s president-elect and an eight-year resident of Frisco. “We get new people signing up all the time.”

Ms. Mackoy said the influx of college-educated residents has had an impact on the city’s priorities.

“There’s a big push on now to try to develop more fine arts in the area,” she said. “People want to have our own arts district here, as opposed to everybody having to go downtown [to Dallas]. You wouldn’t have seen that 10 years ago.”

In all, 38 area cities and towns more than doubled the number of people with graduate or professional degrees in the 1990s. Statewide, that population increased 46 percent.

Dr. Murdock compared the changes with those in the 1970s, when the oil boom drew millions of people from other states to Texas.

“We saw increased income levels and increased educational levels then, and the 1990s were very much a similar phenomenon,” he said.

On the lower end of the education spectrum, Texans were less likely to have dropped out of high school than before. In 2000, 14.9 percent of Texans 25 and older didn’t have a diploma or its equivalent. In 1990, that number was 16.9 percent.

In Dallas County, 25 percent of the residents 25 and older did not have a diploma or equivalent in 2000; in 1990, that number was 22.9 percent.

Dr. Murdock said that foreign immigration patterns played a large part in the educational levels of urban and suburban areas. Foreign workers with advanced degrees generally moved to places such as Plano and Richardson to take advantage of high-tech jobs.

Those who came to America and settled in places such as Dallas were more likely to be poor and less educated, he said.

Census data has not been released for all 50 states, so it’s difficult to tell how the Dallas area rates compared with other American cities.

But Dallas County had more dropouts per capita than the counties that house cities such as Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle. (It had fewer than the counties of Miami, Los Angeles and New Orleans.)

But the new census information is an imperfect window into how the state is doing in fighting its dropout problem.

Because the census only includes information about Texans 25 or older and was gathered two years ago, it does not include anyone who would have been of high school age since about 1993. As a result, efforts at dropout prevention in the last eight or nine years are not reflected.

Researchers will have to wait until late summer, when a more detailed batch of information will be released, including educational breakdowns by age and race and information about 18- to 25-year-olds.

That, Dr. Murdock said, will be a more revealing look at how well-schooled Texans are.

“This release is a sampling,” he said. “That will be the four-course meal.”

In quest to update, state puts social studies texts to the test; Educators brace for controversy as proposed material is reviewed

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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“History repeats itself,” Karl Marx famously wrote. “First as tragedy, second as farce.”

He might as well have added: Third as a high school textbook.

Once a decade, Texas adopts new social studies texts for its schools. The politically charged process is upon us again, and the books up for approval are now available for public scrutiny. In the coming months, they’re certain to receive it.

“Every time we adopt textbooks it’s controversial, but we think this year will be particularly so,” said Cheryl Wright, director of social studies at the Texas Education Agency.

The books are available at North Texas’ two education service centers, one in Richardson and one in Fort Worth. Visitors can view the books there or check them out for 10 days at a time. They will be available through November.

The books were supposed to have been available for public review in February. But state officials gave publishers an extension after Sept. 11 so they could include more recent events.

In the two weeks the books have been available locally, a slow but steady stream of teachers and school administrators has dropped in, usually one or two a day. After the adoption process is completed this fall, it will be up to individual school districts to determine which of the approved books end up in their classrooms.

Private schools and home-school parents also have stopped at the second-floor back room at the Richardson center, where the books are stacked. And textbook publishers have sent in employees to check out what competing publishers are offering.

But the closest examiners of the textbooks are likely to be conservative activists who plan to check the textbooks for bias. They say some books are anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-conservative. Conservatives examine books in most subject areas, but social studies texts have historically gotten more scrutiny because history and economics are inherently more political than, say, physics.

“We have hundreds of people who want to look at these textbooks and make sure they’re presenting our children with accurate information,” said Peggy Venable, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy. “We don’t want them presenting hypotheses and theories as fact.”

Nationally, liberal activists have also been critical of history textbooks, saying they often minimize painful or negative elements of American history. But they have not been active in Texas.

The importance of Texas’ textbook approval process goes beyond the state’s borders. Because Texas is such a large market, books approved here are almost guaranteed a measure of financial success and are often shopped to schools elsewhere. Publishers often create special “Texas editions” of their products, hiring Texas teachers as consultants to create texts with an extra emphasis on Texas facts.

In all, 115 social studies books have been submitted for approval. The State Board of Education is not required to adopt or reject any set percentage of the books, and in previous years, nearly all of the books have been adopted.

In the coming months, state officials will designate teams to search the books for factual errors and to determine how closely each textbook follows the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state curriculum standards on which future students will be tested.

Meanwhile, interested members of the public will pore over the books for themselves.

“There is enormous bias in these books, passages favorable to Democrats and unfavorable to Republicans,” said Bill Ames, a Dallas retiree who is examining U.S. government texts. He said one textbook he just completed had more than 100 examples of bias.

An alliance of conservative organizations, led by Ms. Venable’s Citizens for a Sound Economy, has assembled more than 200 Texans to examine social studies textbooks. They, and any other interested parties, will present their findings at three public hearings scheduled in July, August and September.

The state board is to vote on which to adopt in November.

The Legislature attempted to take away much of the state board’s powers over textbook review in 1995. Tired of years of fights over topics such as evolution and sex education, lawmakers passed a bill saying the board could reject textbooks only if they were manufactured poorly, contained factual errors or did not cover the state curriculum standards. Power to select textbooks was shifted primarily to local school districts.

That shift is one of the reasons a prominent participant in previous textbook battles, Educational Research Analysts of Longview, no longer takes part in state public hearings.

“We’re going to focus on the district end of the process,” said Neal Frey, senior textbook analyst for the group, led by longtime activists Mel and Norma Gabler. “That’ll get under way in a serious way after New Year’s.”

But last year, conservatives won a state battle over science textbooks that they and others say could open the door to more political wrangling. The board, voting along ideological lines, rejected an environmental science textbook after conservatives called it un-American and anti-Christian in a series of public hearings.

Critics said the board overstepped its bounds by saying the book’s alleged bias was serious enough to count as a factual error. But conservatives said the move got publishers to listen to their concerns. Along with the one book that was rejected, two other publishers agreed to changes in their texts after complaints at public hearings.

“After that meeting [when the science textbook was rejected], my phone started ringing off the hook,” Ms. Venable said. “It was textbook publishers calling saying they want to meet with me. And they weren’t science publishers. They said, ‘We’re social studies publishers, and we want to meet with you for next year.’ “

Recent history often mystery to students; New state exam may push teachers to make time for modern events

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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“Whip Inflation Now.”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Reaganomics. Spiro Agnew. Nicaragua, Libya and Grenada.

If you’re above a certain age, memories from the ’70s and ’80s just came rushing back.

If you’re a recent high school graduate, you might be drawing a blank, and it’s no wonder.

About this time each year, history teachers realize with a sigh that they’ve taught their classes too slowly. Instead of bringing students all the way to the present, history classes leave kids, oh, somewhere around the Eisenhower administration.

“I’ve been doing this 29 years, and I’ve never made it to the end,” said Tony Fracchia, a U.S. history teacher at Newman Smith High School in Carrollton. “In a regular U.S. history class, if we get up to World War II and some of the Cold War, we consider that a success.”

But this may be the last year that U.S. history teachers in Texas stop short of the present day. The introduction of the state’s new standardized history test next year will probably force more teachers to quicken their pace.

“That test is going to push us to get through everything,” said Stephen Johnson, a U.S. history teacher in Lubbock and president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies. “We’ve not felt that pressure until now.”

Last week’s Department of Education study, which showed that more than half of American 12th-graders lack even a basic knowledge of U.S. history, was testament that the whole subject is a weak area.

Teachers will testify that knowledge of recent history suffers even more.

“When you bring up the Nixon years or anything after JFK, there’s a big blank spot there,” said Pam Eyer, social studies coordinator at Carroll High School, who said many of her teachers get to World War II and not much further.

“Reagan? Iran-Contra? They look at you with this blank stare.”

Once those students reach college, their professors take notice.

“They know a lot about certain events, like the Kennedy assassination,” said R. Hal Williams, a Southern Methodist University history professor who just finished teaching a course on U.S. history from World War II to the present. “But Harry Truman? Ike? FDR? They don’t know much about those.”

Bay of what?

David Haney, a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said he referred to the Bay of Pigs invasion in an advanced history seminar this semester.

“A number of students said they’d never studied the Bay of Pigs, that they’d never gotten to it in school,” he said. “That took me aback.”
He has also been surprised by the very basic questions he gets at times on the Cold War, such as why the United States and Soviet Union were such intense rivals.

“It reflects a lack of familiarity with the fundamentals,” he said.

Of course, teachers in all fields have to deal with falling behind schedule and failing to cover all the subjects they’d hoped to back in August. It’s just more noticeable in history classes, since they cover a strictly defined span of time. If a teacher doesn’t have time to get to a concept in physics, for example, it’s less likely that students would miss it.

The gap is most noticeable in U.S. history, since world history classes usually don’t even try to cover such a huge subject completely and chronologically. High school U.S. history classes, which are supposed to cover 1877 to the present, have an added handicap: The period they cover is always growing.

“I’ve been teaching for a long time ? I started in the ’70s,” said Marsha Gray, a U.S. history teacher at Carroll High School. “Back then, all you had to do was teach to the 1970s! Now, there’s 30-odd more years to cover, and every year there’s more.”

In Texas, the state textbook adoption process also hurts teachers who want to teach to the present. Because the state approves new history textbooks only about once a decade, the books currently in use were written in 1992 and include nothing of the last decade. A new round of textbooks will be adopted for the 2003-04 school year.

It’s into this scenario that the state’s new standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), will be introduced next spring.

Ever since Texas introduced statewide testing in 1979, state officials have discovered that schools change their teaching to match what’s being tested ? or, as Barbara Caffee, social studies coordinator in Carrollton-Farmers Branch, puts it: “What gets monitored gets done.”

When teachers know a state test will cover certain subjects, they give added emphasis to those subjects. And when district officials know that test results will be used to grade their performance, they pay particular attention.

Next year will be the first time that high school social studies tests will be used to rate schools and districts. The TAKS will be given in social studies in eighth, 10th and 11th grades, and results in all three will be used to determine school accountability ratings.

For several years, students have taken a single social studies test in eighth grade as part of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. But those results haven’t been used to calculate accountability ratings.

A high school’s entire rating could hinge on how students perform on the TAKS history test. The test is expected to include questions about all periods of American history up to and including the Vietnam War. With stakes that high, school officials are unlikely to look kindly on a U.S. history teacher who’s barely to the 1930s by early May, when the test is administered.

“Administrators are paying a lot of attention to social studies now, and it stands to reason it’s because the test will elevate the subject to a new level of importance,” said Cheryl Wright, director of social studies at the Texas Education Agency.

If teachers have covered Vietnam by May 1, they should have time in the remaining weeks of school to get all the way to the present, or at least to the 1990s, educators say.

Many educators say state testing has already helped speed up high school U.S. history teachers. In 1998, the state started giving students an End-of-Course exam in U.S. history, and it covers everything up to Vietnam.

“I know teachers get farther now than they used to,” Dr. Caffee said.

But the End-of-Course test doesn’t count in the accountability system, and the pressure for students to succeed on it is less intense.

“I think teachers didn’t worry too much about getting to Vietnam because the scores didn’t count,” Mr. Fracchia said. “Teachers still jump around and skip what doesn’t interest them.”

Fun stuff at stake

There’s likely to be a downside to teachers rushing to the Vietnam finish line. History teachers usually spend extra time on historical subjects that fascinate them, and they focus on areas that get kids fired up. Some of that could be lost.
“Folks sure don’t make it to the end of the book, but they don’t make it because they’re doing some very good things,” said Jim Kracht, associate dean of education at Texas A&M and a former state social studies official. “They’re spending more time on topics they consider important.”

Ms. Gray said she may have to cut back on an oral history project that she has assigned for years. Mr. Fracchia traditionally teaches a unit tying trends in American popular music to historical events.

“The state’s pushing us into teaching more of a survey course,” he said.

But historians who study 20th-century history say it’s important that students learn about more contemporary events in order to be properly informed members of society.

“There’s a no-man’s land between journalism and history that gets ignored,” said Michael Grow, director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University. “And history courses that don’t bring events up to the present aren’t helping.”

Texas tuition costs among fastest-rising in nation; State public colleges still more affordable than most, study finds

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Twenty years ago, four years of college in Texas cost less than a new Betamax. Now, the price tag is more like that of a new car.

The cost of attending a public four-year university in Texas has shot up 63 percent in the last decade, even after adjusting for inflation. That’s the fourth-largest increase of any state over that period, according to a study published Thursday.

“The Legislature has decided to pass more of the cost of education on to students and away from the state,” said Ray Grasshoff, assistant director for governmental relations for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The study, issued by the nonpartisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said that with tuition costs increasing nationally, college has become less affordable for the poorest Americans at a time when changes in the economy make a college degree more essential than ever.

In 1980, a year’s tuition at an American public four-year university represented about 13 percent of the annual income of poor families. By 2000, it was 25 percent.

Even with recent increases, Texas is still a cheaper place to go to school than most. The average annual cost of tuition and fees at a four-year Texas school is $2,841, the study said. That’s well below the national average of $3,385 and the most expensive state, New Jersey, where tuition averages $5,762. (California is the cheapest: $1,897.)

Texas no longer offers quite the great deal it once did. For years, students at Texas universities paid a flat fee of $50 a semester, regardless of how many courses they took.

In 1971, Texas switched to charging state residents $4 per semester hour, or about $50 to $70 for a full semester’s course load. Texas schools were also a steal for out-of-state students, who paid $40 per semester hour ? less than some other states charged for in-state tuition.

The state’s immense oil and gas revenues allowed Texas to keep tuition so low. Texas’ 1876 state constitution created the Permanent University Fund, which set aside the revenues generated by 2.1 million acres of West Texas land for higher education. Every new well on that land made college cheaper for Texans. The fund is now worth more than $7 billion.

“When we had an oil-based economy in Texas, we actually did well,” said Phil Diebel, vice president for finance and business affairs at the University of North Texas.

Then the Oil Patch went bust, and the money dried up. In 1985, the Legislature tripled tuition, and it’s been edging northward about $2 per hour each year since.

State law currently limits tuition to $42 per semester hour, but schools are also allowed to charge an additional “designated tuition” fee that can double the cost. At the University of Texas in Austin, for example, the current total tuition cost is $84 per hour for Texas residents, and $295 an hour for out-of-staters.

Ten years ago, tuition at Texas four-year schools was the fifth-lowest of the 50 states. Last year, it had dropped to 16th-lowest.

Lauren Page, a junior English major at the University of Texas at Arlington, said tuition costs wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for all those extra fees. “It’s all the little bitty charges they get you with,” she said. “Ten dollars for this, $75 for that.”

Ms. Page earned her first two years worth of credits at several Dallas community colleges. Cost was a major reason; she estimates she saved $5,000 to $6,000 by starting at a two-year institution instead of UTA.

“It was a lot easier to go to a community college and not have to use financial aid until you get to a four-year university,” she said. “I took all my basics there and saved some money.”

The study found that average tuition at Texas’ two-year colleges increased 29 percent during the past decade and was the fifth-lowest in the country.

State officials say they’re aware of the need to keep costs under control.

When the coordinating board put together its strategic plan last year, its No. 1 stated goal was to bring more students from more diverse backgrounds into higher education.

“Colleges and universities can attract students who historically have not believed that higher education is within their reach by making certain that higher education is affordable through financial aid,” the plan said.

State funding for higher education in Texas has increased by 19 percent over the last decade, the study said. State financial aid has also increased. But the increases haven’t been large enough to counteract the 63 percent increase in tuition.

Three states had bigger tuition increases than Texas: Hawaii (79 percent), Arkansas (77 percent) and Idaho (63 percent).

For students such as Ms. Page, the stories of times gone by will be sweeter than just about anything state officials can do to cut tuition now.

“I’ve talked to a couple of older friends of mine about how cheap it was to go to college back then,” she said. “That would just be awesome. You’d want to go to school all year round, because you’re not paying as much. You wouldn’t need a part-time job or to take the summer off from school to earn money. You could just go to school.”