By Joshua Benton
It takes years to learn how to read well.
But Texas teachers have only 23 school days to turn thousands of underachievers into test passers.
That’s how long they have before April 30, when third-graders who couldn’t pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills the first time will have another chance.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” said Valerie Wright, a reading teacher at Dallas’ Burnet Elementary. “When you see what the results were on their first try, you get a new game plan.”
This is the first year third-graders are supposed to pass the reading test to be promoted to the fourth grade. Across Texas, 32,659 students failed on their first try. They, along with about 3,300 students who were absent on test day, get two more chances. After that, a student can still be promoted if the principal, teacher and parent agree.
Students in 55 North Texas districts fared about as well as the state as a whole. Eighty-eight percent of local students passed, a point below the state average. Many suburban districts had passing rates over 95 percent; Dallas schools had a passing rate of 75.5 percent.
In addition, 26.7 percent of North Texas students earned the new “commended” status on the test, about the same as the state average. To be commended, a student had to answer at least 34 of the test’s 36 questions correctly.
This is the first year of the TAKS, the tougher test that succeeds the familiar Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. State officials estimate that district passing rates would have been anywhere from 2 to 6 points higher, on average, if students had been taking the TAAS instead of the TAKS.
Over the last week, school districts have received their results, along with detailed accountings of how students did on each of the test’s objectives. For those who failed, schools are required to provide intensive reading instruction from now until they retake the test.
That instruction has to be given in small groups, with no more than 10 students per teacher. Some schools are working with groups as small as four or five students.
“We’re tailoring the instruction to each child’s needs,” said Pam Meredith, principal of Irving’s Brandenburg Elementary, where 15 students will retake the TAKS next month. “We’re confident most of them will pass next time.”
Many schools are putting their strongest focus on vocabulary. Many students who didn’t pass come from homes where English isn’t spoken or where adults do not put an emphasis on reading. That can leave schools almost alone with the job of building vocabulary.
“I have a word I want to show you,” said Ms. Wright, who taught a group of five Burnet third-graders Thursday. She wrote the word “jubilant” on a dry-erase board. “Have you ever heard that word before?” There came a chorus of “no.”
Ms. Wright had the children read a sentence aloud: “The members of the team felt jubilant when they won first place.” The children read the sentence in unison, except for “jubilant,” which each one pronounced differently – “jumbilant,” or “jubulent.”
“If they don’t have the vocabulary, they can’t get to the higher-level thinking the TAKS requires,” Ms. Wright said. “You can’t get to cause and effect or issues of emphasis. They need to know the words first.”
Ms. Wright and other Dallas teachers are using a new district-designed program called TAKS Intervention Plan for Success, or TIPS. Dallas has 3,000 students who will retake the test.
State officials say they expect about half of the students who failed the first TAKS to pass it the second time around.
Anita Snell at Keyes Elementary in Irving said she sees signs of great hope in the students she’s helping – in particular one boy whose school year seems to have gone wrong at every turn.
“His father’s in jail now,” Ms. Snell said. “He doesn’t know that – his mother doesn’t know how to tell him. And she worked for Kmart, but with their problems, she’s out of a job. This child has suffered all year long.”
Ms. Snell has been as supportive as she can – “lots of hugs, lots of ‘you can do it.’ ” In just the last couple of weeks, she’s seen results. “He has totally turned it around. He’s bringing in his homework every day, and he’s proud of it. He’s happy to come to school. Every day, he gives about a million hugs.”
When he took the TAKS earlier this month, he fell just short of passing. Ms. Snell is confident that won’t happen again on April 30.
“I can see it in his work – it’ll be different next time,” she said.