TAAS’ time isn’t up; For about 10,000 seniors, test very much in the here and now

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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For more than a decade, it roamed the Texas countryside, threatening doom for the state’s children. The scrawniest 8-year-old to the burliest teenager alike feared its wrath.

It could suck the very future out of a child!

Finally, after years of struggle, the mighty monster fell. Parents across the state breathed an exhausted sigh of relief – their little boys and girls were safe. But at 9 a.m. today, thousands of students will discover the awful truth: TAAS lives!

OK, so maybe the 1950s Bela Lugosi slasher flick metaphor is a bit over the top for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. But the TAAS – presumed dead since 2002 – in fact lives on for about 10,000 high school seniors.

“These are kids who have jobs, who maybe have kids of their own, who have lots of other things to deal with,” said Juan Hernandez, a counselor at North Dallas High School, where 92 seniors still have to pass TAAS to graduate. “We want to get all of them over the bar.”

The last time TAAS was given to a wide audience was 2002. Last year, it was replaced by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS.

Passing all three sections of the 10th-grade TAAS test (reading, writing, math) was required for graduation. So the last group of sophomores to take the test is the last group that will have to pass TAAS to graduate.

‘I have to pass it’

Most passed without much difficulty. But others have been retaking TAAS since. Those sophomores are now seniors, and they’re still trying.

“I have to pass it,” said Jasmine Aguillon, a North Dallas senior who’ll be taking the reading and writing TAAS tests this week. “Then I can rest for a little while.”

About 10,000 seniors are expected to retake the TAAS this week – writing today, mathematics Wednesday and reading Thursday. If they fail, they will get a final chance in April. Fail that, and they won’t be able to graduate with their classmates.

“These students are working very, very hard,” said Colleen Kelley, a North Dallas English teacher who works with the TAAS takers. “I think we’ll have a good showing.”

In a way, these seniors are lucky. The TAAS was a substantially easier test than TAKS, and it covered less material. (The graduation TAKS also covers social studies and science, for example.)

Almost 86 percent of students passed all sections of the exit-level TAAS in 2002. Last year, less than 50 percent passed the graduation-level TAKS.

“I feel sorry for the kids who have to take TAKS,” said Eliana Lopez, 17, a North Dallas High senior who still has to pass the writing portion of TAAS to graduate. “For me, TAKS is too much.”

The biggest obstacle at North Dallas High is the writing test. About two-thirds of the school’s students were born outside the United States, and many are recent immigrants whose command of English is still shaky. Ms. Kelley and other teachers have been leading one-to-one and small group sessions with the students in an effort to push them over the top.

“I have problem with language,” said Nasreen Yousafi, who has to pass all three sections of the TAAS to graduate this year. Her family fled Afghanistan under the Taliban; she arrived here in 2001 speaking no English. “I love school. I want to be teacher.”

Sticking around

There’s precedent for TAAS’ stubborn refusal to die. In the days before TAAS, there was TEAMS – the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills. Passing TEAMS was a graduation requirement until TAAS came along in October 1990.

But like some half-dead wraith, TEAMS hung onto existence with admirable fortitude. Students who had failed the exit-level TEAMS in the late 1980s were allowed to keep taking it until they passed.

Keep taking it they did. Texas finally put TEAMS to sleep in July 2001, when a few dozen stragglers took the final version of the test. Those stragglers were probably pushing 30 by then.

State officials say they expect TAAS will also have a lengthy afterlife. The test will still be given four times a year for the foreseeable future – long after the word “TAAS” joins “TEAMS” and “TABS” in the ashbin of Texas testing history.

As she prepared for the TAAS, Eliana knew she faced a complicating factor. She was pregnant, and her due date was Feb. 24 – test day.

A joking dispute emerged among leaders at North Dallas High. Principal Lynn Dehart was rooting for the delivery delay so the baby wouldn’t arrive until after the last bubble sheet was filled in. “But I wanted it to come before,” said Ms. Kelley, Eliana’s English teacher. “She needs to be able to concentrate and not have this baby kicking and distracting her.”

For her part, Eliana had hoped for the baby to arrive a few hours after finishing the test – thus relieving her of two burdens at once.

But nature intervened. Little Jonathan was born early, on Valentine’s Day. Needless to say, Eliana has been busy with motherly tasks, but she has tried to squeeze a few hours of study between diaper changes. This morning, she’ll tackle the writing portion of TAAS.

“I’m feeling good about it,” she said.

Schools in dark on rating system; As TAKS nears, delay of state’s accountability plan worries educators

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Are Texas schools supposed to be running a sprint or a marathon? Hurdles or a relay race?

That’s the analogy some area superintendents are using to decry an unexpected delay in the creation of the state’s new school ratings system. Their schools will be expected to meet a long series of state requirements this year or be rated failures.

But they don’t yet know what those requirements will be. All they know is that the requirements will be much harder than what they’re used to.

“Everyone needs to know what the parameters are, what the standards are,” said McKinney Superintendent David Anthony. “It’s an undue pressure on the campuses and the districts. Our teachers don’t need any additional stress in their lives.”

Here’s the problem: This fall, Texas public schools will be rated for the first time in two years, based primarily on how well their students perform on the TAKS test. The new accountability system – which determines how those ratings are decided – was supposed to be unveiled in December.

But the Texas Education Agency staff in charge of development has been swamped by other tasks – most significantly, working to make Texas compliant with the many requirements of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that requires states to develop a separate accountability system. That has pushed the complex new school ratings system back.

“I think it would have been better if they could have had that information in advance,” said Criss Cloudt, TEA’s associate commissioner in charge of accountability. “But we should have it soon.”

Dr. Cloudt said a preliminary version of the accountability system will be announced in the first week of March. After a period of public comment, the plans will be finalized in April, she said.

Students will take the year’s first Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests in only five days (Tuesday).

Since their debut in 1994, Texas’ school ratings have been the centerpiece of the state’s education reforms. They’re the primary symbol of quality that schools use to impress parents, voters and real estate agents.

In the past, schools were rated based primarily on how many of their students passed the state’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test. For instance, at least 90 percent of a school’s students (and its students of varying racial subgroups) had to pass TAAS for the school to be “exemplary.”

But Texas replaced the relatively easy TAAS with the TAKS test last year. During the transition, the state took a one-year ratings holiday.

“The gold standard we subscribe to is the state rating system,” said Garland Superintendent Curtis Culwell. “We’re anxious to find out the new benchmarks.”

One small but highly visible change under consideration: Getting rid of the “low-performing” label, the lowest schools could earn under the old system.

Dr. Cloudt said that the agency is considering changing “low-performing” to “academically unacceptable.” The “acceptable” label would also change to “academically acceptable.”

The new labels for schools would match the labels that have been used for districts since the 1990s. “It’s a nice demarcation between the old system and the new system, I think,” she said.

Although some parts of the new system are still undecided, Dr. Cloudt will say this much: Parents should be ready for big drops at schools that were rated highly on the TAAS standard.

“I think it’ll be much harder to be exemplary, recognized and acceptable than in the old system,” she said.

Part of that difficulty stems from TAKS, a much more difficult test than its predecessor. Passing rates on the first TAKS exams in 2003 were generally 10 to 20 percentage points lower than on 2002’s TAAS.

But the Legislature also has added a series of new hurdles for schools to clear if they want to earn a good rating.

Among the new ratings criteria:

*How well did schools work with kids who failed last year’s TAKS? Did their scores improve this year?

*Did the school’s overall passing rate go up or down?

*How did special education students perform on the state’s alternative assessment?

It remains unclear what standards schools will have to meet on these and other new measures. “It’s a much more complex, complicated system,” Dr. Cloudt said.

State officials will probably phase in the accountability system over time, making a good rating harder to achieve as the years pass by. When the last accountability system debuted in 1994, just 25 percent of a school’s students had to pass TAAS for the school to be “acceptable.” That number climbed steadily as the system aged; by 2002, the state required a 55 percent passing rate.

Whatever the new requirements, local superintendents said they’ll adjust.

“Regardless of what the standards are going to be, we’re doing what we can to get every kid to pass,” said Duncanville Superintendent Jerry Cook. “It is somewhat frustrating not to know what the standards are. But I don’t know if we could work any harder than we’re working.”

Column: Education experiment reveals power of great expectations

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When the first talking Barbie doll debuted in 1992, she enraged women’s groups – and not just because of her impossible figure.

If you pressed a button on Teen Talk Barbie’s back, she proclaimed: “Math class is tough!”

The American Association of University Women demanded (and received) a recall, saying the blond bombshell would convince young girls that they weren’t expected to do as well as boys in math.

The world is one big expectations game. And that’s as true in our schools as anywhere else.

By the time they reach their teens, girls have heard the claim that boys are better at math. The stereotype gets repeated over and over until kids start to believe it.

The same is true for poor and minority kids: They get signals from an early age that they’re not expected to succeed. After all, newspapers such as this one are always publishing test results that show blacks and Hispanics lagging behind whites. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s why a small experiment done in a junior high outside Austin is so interesting. It’s evidence that if you can coax kids past those pernicious stereotypes, they can beat the expectations that have been set for them – even on big, mean tests such as TAAS or TAKS.

“Brain science is showing us that our conception of intelligence as this fixed thing is wrong,” said Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. “Difficulties are surmountable.”

Since the early 1990s, psychologists led by Stanford professor Claude Steele have examined what they call “stereotype threat.” The central idea: If you can convince kids that performance stereotypes don’t limit their potential, they can do wonderful things.

Their latest study, published in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology in December, was conducted on 138 seventh-graders at Del Valle Junior High.

Dr. Aronson and the other researchers asked a group of University of Texas at Austin students to serve as mentors to the kids. The mentors spent about 90 minutes with small groups of students who were given different messages:

The first group was told that your brain is a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it grows. Intelligence isn’t a fixed endowment you’re handed at birth. Study hard and, brain science tells us, your neurons will adapt and make new connections. Things that seem hard now will seem easy soon enough.

The second group was told that, yes, seventh grade is hard. But it’s hard for everybody. It’s a big adjustment from elementary school, but people tend to bounce back. The fact that many kids struggle in junior high is because it’s a new situation, not because they’ve suddenly turned stupid. Most kids’ grades go up by the time they reach eighth grade.

Troubles will pass

In other words, both messages were meant to tell students that any academic troubles they’re having are not permanent. They can, with time and hard work, go away.

A third group of students heard a combination of the two messages. The fourth and final group – the control group, in experimental terms – was told only about the dangers of drug use.

At year’s end, all the students took the state’s TAAS test. The results were powerful. Minority students who got one of the experimental messages scored 4 or 5 points higher on the reading TAAS than the control group.

The results for girls were even more striking. Girls who got one of the experimental messages scored 8 to 10 points higher on the math test than the control group.Those gains might not look that exciting, thanks to the slightly arcane way TAAS was scored. Look at it another way: The control group girls scored in the bottom 20 percent of the state; those who got the experimental messages were almost exactly at the state average.

“Kids need to understand that their intelligence is not fixed and can grow,” Dr. Aronson said. “It sounds trite to say, ‘All children can learn,’ but these kids get lots of subtle messages that say they can’t learn.”

By itself, one study in Del Valle doesn’t mean much. But there have been dozens of related studies through the years, all pointing to the same idea: If kids expect to do well, they often will. With the right sleight of hand, stereotypes can be overcome.

I don’t intend any disrespect by “sleight of hand,” by the way. It’s just that fighting stereotype threat seems like one of the easiest ways to squeeze a few extra points out of a kid’s bubble sheet. These kids took the same classes and came from the same backgrounds – the only thing different was a brief talk from a college student.

It’s like pulling test scores out of a hat.

‘Brain will adapt’

“Subtle messages are more powerful than being preachy,” said David Disko, one of the researchers who has since become a teacher in Del Valle. “When a student says ‘I’m not smart enough to do this,’ you have to let them know they are, that their brain will adapt if they work it hard enough.”

What does this growing body of research mean to you?

If you’re a teacher: Think hard about the expectations you have for your students. Studies have long shown that if teachers are told their perfectly average students are “gifted” or “have lots of potential,” they produce higher test scores. The simple act of labeling is powerful.

If you’re a parent: Kids blossom intellectually at different rates – don’t let a slow start set your expectations too low. Don’t tell your daughter, “I was bad at math, so I don’t expect you to be good at it.”

And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever tell your kid he’s stupid. Tell him he’s smart: Your wish just might come true.

Joshua Benton covers education for The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at jbenton@dallasnews.com.

Alums doing homework; Local interviews help elite colleges identify standouts among applicants

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It was more than a decade ago that Bob Taylor, Dallas lawyer and proud alumnus of Duke University, met the high school senior with a love of blue water.

Mr. Taylor interviewed the boy to see if he was worthy of admission to Duke. The boy said his favorite hobby was sailing.

“Well, there’s nothing outstanding about that,” Mr. Taylor remembers. “But then he said he had built his own sailboat, somehow gotten it into the Gulf of Mexico and gotten it into a race where he was the only one with a homemade boat. And he’d placed a respectable third.

“I recommend Duke take anyone who shows that much initiative,” he said.

And with that anecdote, another 18-year-old found an entrance into one of America’s elite institutions.

For the hundreds of North Texas students who are applying to the nation’s most selective private universities, it’s alumni interview season. They’re putting on their finest suits and dresses, heading to unfamiliar places – law offices, suburban homes, coffee shops – and sitting down across a table from a stranger who can dictate the next four years of their lives.

“At that moment, it’s not about grades and test scores,” said Wells McMurray, college counselor at The Greenhill School and an interviewer for his alma mater, Princeton University. “It’s about whether you would be a vital, valuable member of the university community. That’s what they’re looking for.”

Alumni interviews are not new. But as the number of qualified applicants skyrockets at the most elite schools, officials say the local screenings are becoming a critical way of distinguishing yourself from the crowd.

“They’re definitely more important than before,” said Sheli Barnett, a Dallas lawyer who coordinates local interviews for the University of Pennsylvania. “It can push you over the edge and into a school.”

‘Essence of the student’

While schools handle the process in various ways, the basic framework is the same. Students apply to universities, usually before Dec. 31 of their senior year. Once the deadline passes, admissions officials send lists of local applicants to their alumni clubs around the country.

An alumni coordinator finds local graduates who are willing to interview and assigns them applicants. The alums contact the students. They meet and talk from 20 minutes to two hours.

“It’s getting the essence of the student,” said Nash Flores, a private equity firm partner who interviews for Harvard University.

The interviewer then writes a report on the student and sends it back to the college. (He’s usually asked to rate the applicant on a numerical scale, often 1 to 10.) The college admissions office then uses the interview report when considering whether to admit or deny.

Admissions officials say the interview isn’t by itself more important than other factors such as grades, course selection or SAT scores. But elite universities are dealing with an applicant boom unseen since the GI Bill after World War II. At Yale, for instance, applications are up almost 50 percent in the last five years, and the acceptance rate has dropped accordingly.

The reasons are part demographics (the number of 18-year-olds is growing) and part technology (online applications make it easier to apply to more schools).

In that context, colleges often fall back on the “softer” elements of a student’s application to sort through the many qualified students they see.

“On paper, everyone looks good,” said Joseph Tam, a network engineer who interviews for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A 1600 SAT is no guarantee of admission. You want to see someone who is curious, who is energetic, who might change the world.”

“It’s a way to give yourself a personality,” said Brett Lacher, a Greenhill senior whose interviewing skills were apparently sufficient to earn him early admission to Penn. “The interviewer gets to see a side of you that doesn’t come out in the application process.”

Many schools once considered alumni interviews as much of a chance to sell students on the college as vice versa. It was often difficult for someone in Texas to visit Ivy League schools, for instance, and alums served as local marketers.

That role still exists, interviewers say, but students are expected to be more knowledgeable about the school before sending off an application. And they’re expected to make the most of the opportunity to highlight their best.

“I think what surprises me often is that students don’t realize the need to sell themselves,” said Vance Smith, who has interviewed 24 MIT applicants this year. “I want to hear the things that don’t make it into the teacher evaluations or the transcript.”

MIT’s admission statistics give a glimpse at how important the interview can be. Of all applicants who had an alumni interview last year, 23 percent were accepted. Only 10 percent of those who were not interviewed were accepted.

Stu Schmill, director of the MIT Educational Council, said part of that gap is caused by self-selection: Stronger candidates are more likely to have the confidence to seek an interview. He said students are not penalized for avoiding an interview. But he added that the interview usually helps admissions officials find a reason to support a student’s admission.

“When a human being asks a kid the question about what he loves to do, you can get a sense of how engaged he really is,” he said. “Students can write a flowery essay about some subject, but in person you can really see if they’re passionate about it.”

Mr. McMurray, the Greenhill counselor, remembers one student who was desperate to go to Yale. “I really loved the kid, but I couldn’t see any particular reason why Yale would pull the kid out of the stack of applications and take her,” he said.

But the alumni interview pushed her over the top. “She came across as so gung-ho for Yale that that’s the reason they took her,” he said. “Without the other ingredients in the application, the interview would have been for naught. But because the other ingredients were of the appropriate quality, she got in.”

Shaking nerves

Jason Klein, an 18-year-old Greenhill senior, said he was “a little nervous” going into his recent interviews with Yale and Duke alums. “But both people were very nice, very easy to talk to,” he said. They talked about his work as a Big Brother, his interest in medicine and his recent tennis injury.

“I was already very excited about both schools going in. But talking about the school re-energizes your feelings about it.”

But no matter how important the interview may be, alumni universally had one piece of advice for seniors: Relax.

Gary Cohen, president of the Duke Club of North Texas, said the students he interviews are more stressed, more rehearsed and less interesting than they were even five or 10 years ago. “Almost walking drones,” he calls them.

“I feel almost sorry for the kids,” Mr. Cohen said. “They’re completely paranoid about getting into a top school. There’s so much pressure from parents. I want to shake them and say, ‘You’re a kid! Don’t worry about it!'”