3rd-graders tackle TAKS retest; Teachers bear down with students to help thousands try to pass

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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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.

Bills address tuition rates; State’s universities would get greater leeway to charge more

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Universities would get new power to raise tuition rates under two bills filed Friday in the Legislature.

The measures take different approaches in setting tuition, which for decades has primarily been the Legislature’s job.

Backers say the changes are important at a time when budget cuts mean there will be less state money available to higher education. Critics say students can’t afford to pay more.

The first proposal, by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, would allow schools to triple the amount they charge in “designated tuition,” one of the many elements of a university’s structure of tuition and fees. Currently, the Legislature allows universities to charge as much as $44 per credit hour each semester in designated tuition. That figure increases by $2 each year.

Under the Shapiro bill, a full-time student taking a typical course load could theoretically see a tuition increase of $2,820 a year. But Ms. Shapiro said no university would risk “pricing themselves out of the market” with such a large increase.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said. “It’s a simple solution that can meet their needs quickly.”

A second bill, by Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, would give universities complete freedom in setting tuition for all students.

The one exception: For in-state undergraduates, colleges would be required to reduce tuition on a student-by-student basis if it exceeds 5 percent of a student’s annual family income.

For example, if a student’s family income were $60,000, he or she would be expected to pay no more than $3,000, or 5 percent of that income, each year. If the university set tuition at $7,000 a year, the university would have to make up the $4,000 difference with grants and financial aid.

“Our institutions need to have this flexibility,” Ms. Morrison said.

The two bills were filed hours before the session’s final deadline for new legislation. Ms. Morrison chairs the House higher education committee; Ms. Shapiro chairs the Senate education committee.

University leaders have been asking for this sort of tuition deregulation for years. But this year’s budget crunch will mean cuts for higher education. That makes deregulation attractive, legislators say, because it means universities can raise more money to make up for lost state revenue.

Ms. Shapiro said her bill had support from all six of the state’s university systems, which include the University of Texas, Texas A&M and University of North Texas systems.

Home-schooled kids can join honor society

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North Texas home-schooled students can now get an honor from someone other than their parents.

The first local chapter of Eta Sigma Alpha, an honor society for home-schooled students, is ready to launch.

The group is open to high school-age students with a grade point average of 3.5 or better and high scores on one of a variety of standardized tests.

Eta Sigma Alpha was formed by a group of Houston parents because the National Honor Society doesn’t allow home-schooled children to be members.

For more information on the local chapter, e-mail organizer Feyi Obamehinti at mhdmetro@aol.com.

— Joshua Benton

UT case shows risk of using Social Security for ID Information of 55,000 people stolen in database hacking

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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As long as universities continue to use Social Security numbers to identify students, there will be crimes like last week’s computer hacking at the University of Texas, experts say.

“I am 100 percent opposed to any college using Social Security numbers that way,” said Jay Foley, director of consumer and victim services at the Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego-based nonprofit group. “All it can do is damage.”

Between Feb. 26 and Sunday, someone hacked repeatedly into a UT computer network, breaching security systems and stealing the Social Security numbers of more than 55,000 students, faculty and alumni.

Law enforcement officials said there is no evidence that the stolen data have been used inappropriately. As of Thursday afternoon, no arrests had been made.

The hacker or hackers apparently used a computer program to query a UT database with 3 million possible Social Security numbers. If one of the numbers matched an individual in the database, the hacker was able to access other personal data.

Since 1973, all Social Security numbers issued in Texas have begun with three digits between 449 and 467, which may have made the hacker’s job easier. The compromised Social Security numbers all began with the numbers 449 to 452, UT officials said.

UT officials said they did not announce the data exposure immediately because they thought doing so might make capturing the hackers more difficult.

“We believed because the origin of this attack was limited and appeared to be local, we might be able to recapture the data without it being disseminated or lost,” said Dan Updegrove, UT’s vice president for information technology.

Much of the personal data the hackers obtained – names, phone numbers, addresses – can be found legally through other sources. But when combined with Social Security numbers, the information can make identity theft possible.

“It looks like they found a soft point in the system,” Mr. Foley said. “From the way it was done, it appears there was planning and preparation involved. But this wouldn’t be that difficult to do.”

Mr. Foley said this was one of the largest data thefts involving a university. Other government agencies have faced even greater losses, such as the 260,000 Social Security numbers stolen from a California state employee database last year.

Universities’ use of Social Security numbers gained national notice last summer, when officials at Yale University accused Princeton officials of improperly accessing student admissions data on a Yale server. Princeton officials were able to use the Social Security numbers of high school seniors to find out if Yale had offered them admission.

Unique identifier

Because it is a unique identifier, many colleges and universities use a Social Security number as a student’s college ID number. A 2002 study by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found that 50 percent of universities surveyed use students’ Social Security numbers as their primary student IDs.

Many universities, including UT, are trying to phase out the use of Social Security numbers of most student documents. Texas A&M has a plan in place, for example, but says it will cost more than $1 million and take several years to accomplish.

“The Social Security number was never intended for this,” said Nede Mansour, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration. “We try to discourage this sort of use, but we can’t do anything about it.”

In any event, abandoning Social Security numbers entirely will likely be impossible, experts say. Even if a university adopts an internal ID system for students, it will always need to provide some way of identifying individuals to other institutions – for example, if it has to send a transcript to another university.

‘Not the best way’

“It’s not the best way to handle it,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “If your name is Barmak Nassirian, there probably won’t be many of you. But if your name is James Wilson, you need something unique to identify you.”

He said universities are also required to gather Social Security numbers by federal programs such as the Hope Scholarship, which provides tax credits for college tuition.

Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, has introduced a bill that would ban the use of Social Security numbers as student IDs by 2005.

“I can’t say that my bill would have stopped what happened, but it could help prevent future identity theft,” Ms. Hupp said. Her bill will get its first committee hearing on Monday.

Teachers thwart closure of retirement loophole; House vote allows Texas educators to draw both pension, Social Security

By Todd J. Gillman
Staff Writer

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WASHINGTON – Texas teachers rounded up enough friends Wednesday to stop Congress from closing a loophole that lets them change jobs for one day in order to collect both Social Security and a teacher’s pension.

Texans covered by the state’s teacher retirement system generally can’t collect Social Security. But thousands have found a way to do so by taking advantage of the “last-day loophole,” spending their final working day as a janitor or clerk at one of the handful of school districts that collect Social Security tax.

The General Accounting Office reported last fall that almost 4,800 Texas teachers took advantage of the loophole in the previous year – boosting their annual pensions by nearly $5,000. The agency called the practice abusive and says it is costing taxpayers $450 million.

But educators call it unfair to deprive them of benefits they would have gotten if they hadn’t gone into teaching.

The House voted, 249-180, to approve a Social Security bill that included the provision closing the loophole. But that was 35 votes short of the two-thirds needed because of how the bill came to a vote. The bill’s sponsor acknowledged the measure failed because of objections raised by Texas teachers. He said he’ll try again to pass the legislation.

Most Texas lawmakers voted against the bill.

‘Mean-spirited’

“This was a very mean-spirited, petty and bureaucratic response to a benefit for deserving individuals,” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “We don’t claim that people who haven’t paid into the system should receive benefits. But those who have shouldn’t be stopped from receiving them just because they’re teachers.”

Olan Hankins is one of the loophole’s beneficiaries. The Oak Cliff resident paid into Social Security for 35 years but would have collected nothing because he spent his final five years teaching in Garland. To requalify for benefits, he spent a week as a University of North Texas janitor, a job covered by Social Security. Now 66, he collects about $860 extra each month. He was happy to hear of the House vote.

“Someone should point out to Congress that they should start their economy drive with someone other than schoolteachers,” he said.

Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., sponsor of the bill, gave no timetable for when he’ll bring the bill back up. “It is my job to stay focused on the needs of all workers, not just appease the few who believe it’s their right to cheat their way into Social Security,” he said.

Apart from closing the loophole, the bill would have denied Social Security benefits to felons and fugitives, and Mr. Shaw and other key supporters accused Democrats of blocking a crackdown on waste, fraud and abuse at the behest of “union bosses” representing teachers.

“Democrats betrayed Social Security and America’s seniors by obeying the orders of big special interest groups,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif.

Texans vote against bill

Although the vote did fall mostly along party lines – just 13 Republicans voted against the bill – nine of 15 Texas Republicans sided with teachers. The Texas Republicans who opposed the bill were Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, Michael Burgess of Highland Village, Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, John Carter of Round Rock, John Culberson of Houston, Mac Thornberry of Clarendon, Larry Combest of Lubbock and Ron Paul of Surfside. All of the state’s Democrats opposed the bill.

The new rules would have taken 90 days to become effective, prompting a warning from Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, that the bill would create a “mass exodus” from public schools. He said 40,000 Texas teachers would be affected.

Staff writer Joshua Benton in Dallas contributed to this report.

TAKS gets at least one wrong on new tests

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Texas is one week into the TAKS era, and already there has been a snag.

About 5,000 copies of Tuesday’s third-grade Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills repeated the same question.

The error occurred on one of the 56 versions of the reading test distributed to students. The versions all feature the same questions but in different order to frustrate students who try to cheat.

State officials said the mistake would be taken into account when grading tests. Those grades will be important: This is the first year third-graders will be expected to pass the TAKS to move on to fourth grade.

— Joshua Benton

A lesson in consequences; Texas’ effort against social promotion faces a test; TAKS scores to dictate who moves on, but exceptions are possible

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Sherri Corum knows what fear looks like in the eyes of a third-grader.

“On test day, some of them come in with this blank look on their face,” said Ms. Corum, a third-grade teacher at Plano’s Weatherford Elementary. “You can tell they’re scared they might not do well.”

There’s a new reason to be scared.

On Tuesday, more than 300,000 third-graders will take the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. And, for the first time, those who can’t pass a standardized test will face real consequences: They won’t be allowed to go to fourth grade.

State officials say about 45,000 kids will walk out of their classrooms Tuesday having earned a failing grade. What’s unclear is how many of those 45,000 will really end up repeating third grade.

Texas has built enough safety nets – or loopholes, depending on whom you ask – that no one knows how many kids will be held back because of the new standard.

“We just won’t know until kids take the test,” said Gary Dworkin, a sociology professor at the University of Houston who has studied retention.

The idea is to curb social promotion, the act of pushing children from one grade to the next simply because they’re a year older, not a year wiser.

Children who can’t succeed in one grade aren’t likely to suddenly blossom in the next one, the argument goes, so it’s better to retain them and let them master basic skills before moving to more complex ones.

“It is unfair to promote children through the school system if they can’t do the work,” said Texas Education Agency representative Adrienne Sobolak. “It’s unfair to the children, to their classmates and to their teachers.”

In Texas, as in most states, students tend to get passed along regardless of how they perform on the state test. In 2001, more than 37,000 third-graders failed the state’s reading test. Only 4,215, or 11.2 percent, of those were made to repeat the grade. The rest were promoted to fourth grade.

Setting the standard

The social promotion standard was part of the Student Success Initiative launched by the Legislature and Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. The initiative paid for extra teacher training, gave more money for early reading programs and required schools to target weak readers at an early age.

In all, the state has spent more than $500 million on the program. Tuesday’s test is the enforcement part of all that spending.

Students will need to answer 20 of the 36 questions they’ll face in order to pass. If they do, their school year proceeds as normal. But if they don’t:

* Students will be put immediately into an intense reading instruction program for five weeks.

* On April 30, those who failed will retake the TAKS. If they fail again, they’ll be expected to attend summer school.

* Finally, after summer school, two-time failers will be tested a third time.

After three failures, the student’s fate is in the hands of a grade placement committee made up of his parent, teacher and principal. If all three agree that the child should be promoted anyway, he is. If any of them disagrees, he’s retained.

Texas isn’t an innovator on this count – at least 22 states tie grade promotion to testing. Their experience suggests the new rules may not be as effective at retaining students as some would like.

North Carolina’s system is similar to what Texas is adopting. Students there get three chances to pass the Gateway test. If a student fails all three times, an appeals committee considers other evidence, such as reading grades. But the student’s principal gets final say.

The results: 7,401 fifth-graders failed the Gateway three times in 2001; only 1,995 ended up repeating the grade.

“The General Assembly built in all these safeguards for children – but then people started to get upset we weren’t retaining more of them,” said Louis Fabrizio, North Carolina public schools’ director of accountability services.

Florida has faced similar results. Nearly 60,000 fourth-graders failed last year’s Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which was supposed to be required for advancement to the fifth grade. But only 7,164 fourth-graders were held back.

“The standards were fairly loose,” said Lee Baldwin, senior director of assessment for Florida’s Orange County schools. “There were exemptions and exceptions that let a lot of students through.”

Something in common

The common thread: When promotion decisions are left to principals and teachers, they tend to promote at a higher rate than test results would support.

“There are children who blossom when they’re retained,” Ms. Corum, the Plano third-grade teacher, said. “But you really have to look at how the child is performing at things other than the test to make that decision.”

Florida legislators were so angered by the low number of retentions that they passed a new law reducing the number of exemptions allowed.

“There was frustration that the law was being ignored,” said Bill Edmonds, spokesman for the Florida Department of Education. “You won’t be able to make an end run around the law any more.”

North Carolina officials, in contrast, seem happy with the results they’ve seen.

“We don’t see this as a retention policy,” Mr. Fabrizio said. “We see it as a way to identify children who need additional help.”

Not all states give as much flexibility as the Texas plan.

Louisiana, for instance, doesn’t allow principals to overrule test scores. As a result, the state has failed up to 15 percent of its fourth- and eighth-graders since instituting a plan against social promotion in 2000.

In some schools in New Orleans, three-quarters of eighth-graders repeat the grade.

“We’re definitely retaining a lot of kids,” said Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state board of education. “There was a strong desire to deal with this population.”

Because Texas leaves the final decision up to principals, teachers and parents, it’s likely that standards will be applied differently in different districts.

Even within his Central Florida district, Dr. Baldwin said some schools were up to three times more likely to retain students than others. In 2001, some North Carolina school districts retained more than 65 percent of their failing students. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the state’s largest district, didn’t retain a single one.

A harmful practice?

Many principals and teachers believe retention harms children. They cite research that indicates students who fail a grade are more likely to drop out before graduation than those who are socially promoted.

“There are certainly instances when retention is viable,” said Connie Lewellen, the principal at Weatherford Elementary in Plano, who said her school rarely retains more than a single third-grader in any given year. “But I wouldn’t want a single test to be making the decision.”

But there’s evidence on both sides. Dr. Dworkin at the University of Houston has done several studies using Texas student data that he says indicate retaining a weak student helps more than it hurts – at least if it’s done in early grades.

“School people still are convinced that retention never works,” he said. “There’ll be some resistance there. If you delay retention until seventh or eighth grade, the kids will never catch up. But if you do it early, they can end up stronger for it.”

How many Texas children will end up facing that fate?

State officials predict an 85 percent passing rate on Tuesday’s test. Mr. Fabrizio said that in North Carolina, roughly three-quarters of the students who fail a Gateway test the first time pass on their second or third try. If that’s the case in Texas, more than 10,000 students would have their fate in the hands of grade placement committees this summer.

“The test looks real hard,” said Drew Gannon, an 8-year-old in Ms. Corum’s class. “I hope I pass.”