TAKS forecast: gloomy; The pressure is on for millions of Texas schoolchildren scheduled to take state exams today, and indications are that many won’t make the grade

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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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.”

TAKS standard is raised; After third-graders put down pencils, score requirement increased

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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One question.

For 3,339 Texas third-graders, a single question – and a surprise rule change – appears to be the difference between a stress-free spring and possibly being held back.

With little fanfare, the Texas Education Agency last month raised the number of questions students had to get right on the third-grade reading TAKS – the test students are supposed to pass to move on to fourth grade.

All the way up to test day (March 3) teachers were told that students had to answer 22 of the test’s 36 questions correctly to pass. But students performed so well that TEA raised the cutoff to 23 after the test was taken.

That meant that the 3,339 students who got exactly 22 questions right were suddenly below the bar and facing possible retention. That doesn’t sit too well with some teachers.

Cherie Luckett, a reading specialist at Mesquite’s Seabourn Elementary, worked with 30 third-graders whom the school considered at risk of failing this year. Three of them scored exactly 22.

“He worked and worked and worked and worked,” she said of one boy. On test day, “he took all day to read those stories – slowly, over and over. He worked hard enough to get 22 right. It’s very hurtful when he doesn’t pass it because they changed the rules.”

One of the three students was Cedric Tatum. He failed the third-grade TAKS last year and was retained. Last month, he got 22 questions right.

“I was hurt,” said his mother, Lakisha Williams. “He was disappointed. He was scared, wondering, ‘Are they going to put me in third grade again?'”

“I was frustrated, but I couldn’t show him. I told him, ‘You did a good job. I know you worked hard. You’re doing your best.'”

State officials say the change was an essential part of “equating,” a statistical review all state tests undergo.

“The adjustments … were not done to make the test harder or easier to pass,” wrote education commissioner Shirley Neeley in a letter sent to districts Tuesday. “Rather they were necessary to ensure that students were required to meet the same standard” as last year.

The State Board of Education originally set the TAKS’ cut scores back in November 2002. Since the board wanted to phase in the tougher TAKS (which replaced the TAAS), it created a sliding scale.

In 2003, third-graders would need to get 20 of the test’s 36 questions right to pass. That would move to 22 in 2004 and 24 in 2005.

But last fall, TEA posted a document on its Web site labeling the cut scores as “approximate” – a term that had not been used on information distributed earlier to educators.

After students took the test last month, TEA “equated” it – meaning it compared the exam’s difficulty to the previous year’s version of TAKS. (A little variation is normal from year to year, they say, because the same questions can’t be used multiple times.) They determined that this year’s test was slightly easier than last year’s.

Overall, 91 percent of the state’s 266,700 third-graders passed the reading test this year. That’s up from 89 in 2003, even with the higher passing bar.

For those 3,339 third-graders, the change will have real consequences. State rules require them to undergo intensive small-group reading instruction until April 28, when they will retake the TAKS. If they fail again, they get one final chance this summer.

Those who still haven’t passed will have to repeat third grade, unless the child’s parent, teacher and principal agree to move him along.

Column: Smart kids come in all class sizes

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

In 1968, Jack Singley scheduled middle-school classes for a living. “In all your core classes, you were lucky if you only had 33 kids in a classroom,” he said. “Thirty, 35 – that was the standard.”

In 1984, a new state law required that every Texas classroom from kindergarten to fourth grade have no more than 22 students. Educators were thrilled.

In 2004, Mr. Singley is the superintendent of Irving schools. Much of his job nowadays is finding ways to cut the district’s budget. And he wants to see the hard-and-fast 22-student rule come to an end.

“It’s very expensive,” Mr. Singley said . “Is there any difference between a class with 22 kids and one with 24 kids? Absolutely not.”

With Texas scrounging for school money, the class-size cap is back in the news. For those who didn’t read the fine report on the subject by my colleague Terrence Stutz a week ago Sunday, some people are saying it costs too much to hire the extra teachers the 22-student cap requires. They want more flexibility.

The most common idea being bounced around Austin: Make the 22-to-1 ratio a district average instead of a classroom requirement. So a school could get away with a 24-student classroom if it had a 20-student classroom to balance it out.

As you might expect, there’s some disagreement about the wisdom of such a move. But what does the research say? Do smaller classes lead to smarter kids?

Surprisingly, not much. Some would argue not at all.

Take California: In 1996, it had the largest elementary school classes in the nation – about 29 kids to a classroom. The state Legislature decided to change that and has since spent somewhere north of $10 billion to cap class sizes at 20. Some people called it the biggest state education reform effort in American history.

But did it work? The state board of education asked four esteemed research organizations to study the impact of class-size reduction on academic achievement. Their findings: Smaller classes were very popular among teachers and parents. But there was “little connection” between smaller classes and better test scores.

One reason: Having more jobs to fill meant schools were forced to hire more uncertified, underqualified teachers. Teachers hired after the cap were seven times more likely to be less than fully certified than those hired before. And those least-qualified teachers were most likely to be assigned to kids who are struggling.

It’s harder to learn from a bad teacher, no matter how many kids are in the class.

Studies in other states have found that smaller classes have little or no impact on test scores for most kids. (Non-English speaking kids – which Texas has a lot of – do seem to be the exception.)

To be fair, both sides of the debate can point to research that seems to support their arguments. Both sides can also point out the flaws in the other side’s studies, point out the flaws in those alleged flaws, and so on. (Education researchers have yet to find a subject they can’t disagree about.)

But what about Texas? Our student-teacher ratios shrank noticeably in the 1990s. In an average Texas district, classes contracted by slightly more than one child between 1994 (when Texas introduced its school ratings system) and 2002 (the last year of the TAAS test). Some shrank by a little; some shrank by a lot.

If smaller class sizes lead to better student performance, classes that shrank the most should see the biggest gains, right?

To test that theory, I pulled test scores for every Texas school district from 1994 and 2002. I also gathered data on average class sizes at the elementary and secondary levels.

At first glance, there was no apparent pattern in the numbers. Some districts with small classes scored very well; some didn’t. The same was true with large-class districts: some did very well; some didn’t. No clear connection.

So my colleague Jennifer LaFleur, a data whiz, ran what statisticians call a regression analysis to search for a connection. I won’t bore you with the details of the analysis, but I will use one term that might be new to you: r-squared.

(See, these education columns can be … educational!)

An r-squared value is always between zero and 1. A zero indicates absolutely no statistical relationship between two items (like class size and test scores). An r-squared of 1 means there is a perfect connection – if you knew how small a school’s classes are, you could predict with precision how strong their test scores would be.

In Texas elementary schools, the r-square is 0.002. In high schools, it’s 0.003.

Those are teeny, tiny numbers. They say that in Texas, there’s been almost no connection between shrinking class sizes and growing test scores.

That matches up with what much of the education research says. Yes, 35 in a classroom probably is too many. And yes, there are some kids with specific needs – such as language problems or learning disabilities – who might need classes of 15 or fewer.

But for the great majority of kids, there’s precious little difference between a class of 22 and a class of 24. Except that, under the law, one is legal and one isn’t.

“The quality of the instruction you give is just as important as how many kids there are in the room,” Mr. Singley said.

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