By Joshua Benton
The most stressful period in recent Texas education history is about to begin.
No, not the legislative session in Austin. It’s TAKS season.
Millions of Texas children will take state exams today, but the most pressure is on high school juniors. This is the first year that they must pass all four TAKS tests to earn a high school diploma.
And every indication is that they’re not ready.
“We’re going to have families experiencing failure that aren’t very accustomed to it,” said John Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition.
If last year’s test scores are any guide, more than 100,000 juniors will fail at least one TAKS test this year. Those students will have multiple chances to retake the test. But it seems likely that, at this time next year, tens of thousands of students will be saved the expense of renting caps and gowns.
The next big decision for Texas’ education leaders: how to deal with education failure on a larger scale than the state has ever seen.
Will they lower standards to let more students pass, as some states have done? Or will they stick to the rules they’ve set and anger legions of parents, educators and students?
Last year was the first time Texas students took TAKS. Juniors took the test, but passing it was not required for graduation.
The results were not heartening. The only bright spot was in social studies, which 90 percent of juniors passed. But English language arts (69 percent passing), math (68 percent) and science (67 percent) were all laggards.
49.8% passing rate
Only 49.8 percent of students passed all four sections, with numbers even lower for poor and minority students. In all, about 111,000 of the 222,000 juniors who took the test last year failed at least one portion.
If history is any guide, students will do better this year. Teachers are more familiar with TAKS and have been able to adjust their instruction. Plus, last year’s 11th-graders had little at stake when they took the TAKS. Many educators say they didn’t try very hard.
But even if students make huge strides, a high failure rate is likely.
“People are saying, ‘Well, they may not do as badly as you think,'” said Mary Helen Berlanga, a State Board of Education member. “But you can’t expect miracles.”
“About two-third of my students are well prepared,” said James Roye, a math teacher at North Dallas High School. “The other third, no matter what I do, they’re not ready.”
At North Dallas High last year, 26.6 percent of juniors passed all sections. That’s largely because North Dallas has the highest population of non-English-speaking students of any high school in the state.
Today, high school juniors will take the math test. Science and social studies will follow later this week. They took the English language arts test in February. (Because it includes an essay, grading takes longer.)
When students don’t do well on graduation tests, states often change the rules to allow more kids to walk across the commencement-day stage.
“If you have 30, 40 – even 20 percent of students not getting a diploma, that won’t pass politically,” said Keith Gayler of the Center on Education Policy and leader of a project to analyze graduation exams nationwide.
There have been parental revolts against graduation tests in Florida and Massachusetts. Scores on Arizona’s test have been so low that its use as a graduation requirement has been delayed four times. When Nevada’s math scores were coming in too low, the state lowered the score required for graduation.
California’s state board voted last year to delay full implementation of its graduation test for two years. It was supposed to be in force for this spring’s graduating class; now it won’t be a requirement until the class of 2006.
“It was a victory for us,” said Lisa Castellanos, campaign organizer for Californians for Justice, which is fighting the exit exam. “Too many students were going to be denied a diploma just because they go to a school with fewer resources.”
For their part, Texas Education Agency officials say they have no plans to bend the rules, no matter how many students are failing. Students will have three additional chances to take TAKS after this week, and many who fail the first time will improve with more help in the coming months.
“I think and hope we expect to see significant growth,” said Susan Barnes, associate commissioner for standards and programs at the Texas Education Agency. “Children and teachers and schools step up to the plate and meet expectations. I think we’ll be in very good shape.”
Political, legal concerns
Educators’ concerns aren’t merely political – they’re also legal. In several states, groups representing minorities, the poor, or students with disabilities have filed suit against graduation tests, arguing that they discriminate against students stuck in underfunded or otherwise subpar schools.
In 1996, a coalition of minority groups led by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit alleging that the TAAS discriminated against minorities. Most of the students who failed the exit-level TAAS were black or Hispanic.
MALDEF lost its case in federal court, in 2000. Indeed, no graduation exams have yet been overturned by courts, Mr. Gayler said. But legal groups are considering their options.
“Obviously we can’t make the same legal arguments or we’ll lose again,” said David Hinojosa, MALDEF’s education staff attorney in San Antonio. “But there’s always a legal avenue to pursue legal justice for these students.”
Some education leaders are supporting a compromise they hope could hold off legal action. They say TAKS should be scored as an average, not as individual tests, while schools adjust to the exam. In other words, if a student scores 5 points above passing on math, he could score 5 points below passing on science and still graduate.
Maryland recently adopted a similar system when its test scores were low.
Mike Moses, Dallas’ superintendent and a former state education commissioner, has said that composite scoring or a similar compromise will be necessary to get passing rates to an acceptable level.
Sticking to their guns
But Texas’ education leaders have traditionally taken pride in sticking to their standards even when some think they’re too high. Efforts to weaken the third-grade reading requirement failed in the last legislative session, for example.
“Texas has a longer history than many other states in dealing with accountability for students and campuses,” Dr. Barnes said. “In some ways Texas has already weathered some of the early challenges other states are dealing with.”