Kids fail TAKS, still pass; Districts vary widely on promoting 5th-graders who flunked test

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

For fifth-graders having trouble with the TAKS test, everything comes down to a familiar factor: Location, location, location.

Texas’ law against social promotion is supposed to set uniform standards, requiring students to pass both the math and reading TAKS to be promoted to the sixth grade. But districts are given wide leeway in deciding who actually gets held back, and – according to newly released data from 2005, the most recent available – they use it in vastly different ways.

For instance, the Klein school district in suburban Houston promoted 98.5 percent of its fifth-graders who had failed the TAKS reading test repeatedly. Wichita Falls schools, in contrast, promoted just 4.8 percent.

Austin ISD promoted 90 percent of its fifth-graders who repeatedly failed the TAKS math test. But the Georgetown district – a 20-minute drive away – promoted only 20 percent.

“There seems to be a lot of variation in the way people interpret the law,” said Dawson Orr, Wichita Falls’ superintendent.

Despite their divergent results, officials in several districts said they are working within the law, which leaves the final decision about promotion to the child’s parents and educators.

In all, Texas schools ended up promoting about 70 percent of its worst-performing fifth-graders through a tool known as the grade placement committee.

“Our parents very much want to see their children move on and have those upper-grade experiences,” said Holly Hughes, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Clear Creek ISD near Houston. “We work hard with each family to determine what’s best for each child.”

Promotion without skills

Social promotion is the practice of pushing kids along to the next grade regardless of their academic abilities. In the 1990s, as Texas developed its testing system, some legislators believed students were being promoted through the system without the basic reading and math skills they need to succeed.

So in 1999, then-Gov. George Bush signed into law the Student Success Initiative, whose effects begin with the Class of 2013 as it makes its way through the Texas public schools.

When those children reached third grade, in 2003, they had to pass the TAKS reading test to be promoted. Two years later, they had to pass both the math and reading TAKS as fifth-graders. And in 2008, they will have to pass the eighth-grade test, again in math and reading.

The policy was not imposed without controversy. Many educators said retaining students damaged their future potential by isolating them socially and increasing the chance that they eventually would drop out of high school. A number of studies have shown that being held back a year is one of the strongest predictors of whether a child will drop out.

But the law includes an out. Even if a student has failed the TAKS test three times, the student can still be promoted by the grade placement committee – a three-person group made up of the child’s parent, teacher and principal.

“The process puts a lot of weight on one data point” – a TAKS score, said Nancy Tarvin, executive director of elementary curriculum in Leander ISD near Austin. “So I’m glad we have a grade placement committee that can look beyond that one data point and make a sound decision for a child.”

Leander is among the school districts that use the committee’s promotion power the most. In 2005, Leander promoted 94 percent of its fifth-graders who repeatedly failed the reading TAKS and 91 percent of those who repeatedly failed in math.

Ms. Tarvin said those figures are not the result of any districtwide policy. “We look at each child individually,” she said. “We get the folks who know the student the best together and make the decision on whether a student will be successful in the next grade. There’s no district line.”

According to state documents, the grade placement committee is required to determine whether the student, “given additional accelerated instruction, is likely to perform on grade level during the next school year.” The decision to promote must be unanimous.

Statewide, schools were optimistic about their kids’ abilities. In 2005, they used grade placement committees to promote failing fifth-graders about 70 percent of the time. That’s significantly higher than the rate for third-graders, where the figure is 49 percent.

Jay Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, said it may be that schools are worried about the social implications of retaining students as they grow older. But he believes that many students promoted by grade placement committees are probably being poorly served, no matter how well-meaning the school’s intentions.

He studied the results of a similar policy against social promotion for third-graders in Florida and found that students forced to repeat the grade ended up learning more over the next two years than those who were promoted.

“Put it this way: Students who were promoted are leaving fifth grade with less knowledge than students who were retained have entering fifth grade,” he said.

The wide variation in how districts used their promotion power shows that educators are not skilled at consistently picking which students would benefit from retention and which would not, he said.

‘The law is the law’

Dr. Orr, the Wichita Falls superintendent, said he dislikes having to retain students because of the increased dropout risk. But his district retains at a high rate because he believes the law requires it to.

“I don’t think the law is particularly wise, but it’s not vague,” he said. “The law is the law, and we’re going to work with it in good faith.”

In districts that have been the most aggressive about retention, policies are affecting enrollment patterns.

In the school year that finished this spring, Wichita Falls had a nearly equal number of students in first through eighth grades – somewhere between 1,070 and 1,127. The only exception was the sixth grade, which had only 971 students. That’s the Class of 2013, which has already had its weakest students siphoned off twice.

The big challenge, most agree, will come in 2008, when the Student Success Initiative tackles eighth grade. Public schools in Texas and elsewhere have had substantial success in raising elementary-school scores over the last decade. But older kids have proven more challenging.

For Texans, that’s been particularly true in math. Only 68 percent of eighth-graders passed the math TAKS last spring. That compares with passing rates of 90 percent in third grade and over 80 percent in fifth grade.

In addition, holding back an older child is generally considered substantially riskier than with an 8-year-old. Shane Jimerson, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies retention policy, said that while policymakers may think social promotion is a problem, there’s no evidence that retaining a child is any improvement.

“A century of research reveals the deleterious effects of grade retention,” he said.

COLUMN: Getting real on dropouts; Mass hirings alone won’t fix problem; invest in a strong staff

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

One of the concepts newspaper readers sometimes have trouble with is the divide between the editorial staff and the news staff.

The folks who write our editorials, on the fourth floor here at The Dallas Morning News, are good people. But they don’t have any say in what I write, and I don’t have any say in what they write.

It won’t surprise you that we sometimes disagree. So excuse me while I get out my bone-picking tools.

In an editorial last week, they addressed a big issue: How to keep more of Texas high school students in school and marching toward graduation. Texas has a lot of dropouts every year – depending on how you do the math, more than any other state. Lots of those are Hispanic kids with poor English skills.

The editorial board’s first recommendation: The Legislature should give more money to schools so they can hire more bilingual teachers and cut class sizes.

The logic seems impeccable: A teacher can do a better job with 18 students than she can with 30. So shrink classes and you end up with better results, right?

Unfortunately – no matter how well intentioned the idea – I suspect that going on a hiring spree wouldn’t have the impact some hope for.

Cutting class size means you have to hire a lot of new teachers. And that means giving jobs to a lot of people who might not be the most qualified.

The most famous case was California, which in 1996 began a massive, multibillion-dollar effort to reduce class size. A few years later, the state hired a blue-ribbon panel to analyze the impact all that spending had had.

The discouraging result: Researchers couldn’t find any evidence that smaller class sizes had boosted scores – even a smidge.

Whatever benefits were gained through smaller classes were canceled out by the fact that schools had to hire 29,000 new elementary teachers in three years. And a lot of the new hires weren’t particularly qualified.

Before the initiative, 1.8 percent of teachers were uncertified. After the hiring spree, 12.5 percent weren’t. And because the most qualified teachers often prefer to work in the relative comforts of the suburbs, poor and minority students were disproportionately hard hit.

If you’re looking to increase the number of bilingual teachers in North Texas schools, you’ll run into the same problem. At the risk of offending the unemployed, if you’re a qualified bilingual teacher in North Texas, chances are extremely good that you already have a job.

Just to fill their current positions, districts are already being forced to hire questionably qualified bilingual teachers. They’re hiring Hispanics with poor English skills, or whites and blacks with poor Spanish skills. Or else they’re hiring people with good language ability but little or no training in how to teach.

Talk of a teacher shortage is usually overblown. There are plenty of good history and English teachers who can’t find jobs, for instance. But a decent bilingual teacher is a hot property. There aren’t a lot of them sitting on the sidelines.

Adding a lot of new bilingual teaching positions would mean hiring even more people with sketchy qualifications.

So what should we do? I’ll throw out two ideas.

First, invest in training programs that can build a better pool of potential bilingual teachers.

There are very few issues that will have a greater impact on Texas’ future than how its Spanish-speaking students are educated. And there would be worse ways to spend the state’s money than on an aggressive campaign to give people the language and teaching skills they need to succeed in the classroom. Consider it a Marshall Plan for education – a big investment that pays off for decades to come.

If you want to hire more qualified bilingual teachers, first you’ve got to create them.

(For the record, the folks who write our editorials agree.)

Second, consider investing in people who can help kids but don’t suffer from the supply-and-demand problems that bilingual teachers do.

For instance, a good school counselor can do a lot to help kids stay on course. But at the same time schools have been grabbing people off the street to be bilingual teachers, they’ve been cutting back on counselors. It’s not unheard of to have 1,000 students assigned to a single counselor.

The result is there are often more qualified counselors without jobs than there are bilingual teachers. Putting some of them back to work could help keep kids connected.

All else equal, smaller classes are better than big ones, and more teachers are better than fewer. But if Texas wants to make a big investment, it should be realistic about the potential returns.

COLUMN: Is TAKS approach fair? Weakest kids written off while schools focus on state accountability

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

You probably didn’t notice, but Texas schools just celebrated a big holiday.

I doubt anyone brought cupcakes to class, but Oct. 27 looms large in principals’ offices and the halls of administration buildings.

That’s because the last Friday in October is New Kids Stop Mattering Day – the day after which any new students enrolling at your school won’t be counted in next spring’s TAKS scores.

It’s a holiday that makes life easier for teachers and principals wishing for higher test scores. But it also hurts thousands of Texas kids.

Jennifer Booher-Jennings is a Columbia graduate student whose research I’ve written about before. She studies how poorly constructed testing systems can leave some kids without the attention they deserve.

Last year I wrote in this space about her study of a Texas elementary school, where teachers gave enormous help to kids at risk of falling just a few points short of passing TAKS. That’s good.

But that extra help came at the expense of weaker kids – kids who might not pass even with more tutoring and teacher time invested. They were being written off as hopeless – at age 8.

That’s bad. It’s bad because it ignores what would be best for kids – helping the weakest at least as much those on the bubble – and instead does what’s best for the adults. Namely, it boosts a school’s passing rate by going after only the low-hanging fruit.

While working on that study, she noticed something I’ve seen often in Texas: Teachers were very aware of whether kids’ TAKS scores would count against them. They called kids “accountables” and “unaccountables.”

In Texas, the “unaccountables” come primarily from two groups. First are kids in special education – some get counted, but many others don’t. Second are kids who switch schools during the year – the ones who arrive after New Kids Stop Mattering Day.

One teacher at the school Ms. Booher-Jennings studied had mandatory tutoring for all the “accountables” three days a week. The 10 “unaccountables” in her class? They were, in her words, “put on the back burner.”

Here’s a transcript from one grade-level planning meeting Ms. Booher-Jennings sat in on:

Teacher 1: “This kid is not accountable. Do I even need to worry about him?” Teacher 2: “No … don’t worry about him.”

If teachers know that some kids can be safely ignored – given all the test pressures they already deal with – some are going to redirect their attention elsewhere.

She and a colleague, Andrew Beveridge, have authored a new study that looks at the impact of excluding students from the accountability system.

The numbers excluded for special education are bigger. But in some cases, the late-arrival totals are significant, too. For example, in 2005, Dallas’ Pease Elementary excluded 20 percent of its kids because of their arrivals after the October deadline. So did City Park Elementary.

And in many cases, the kids being excluded for arriving late are disproportionately poor and minority. At Seagoville Elementary, 30.8 percent of black students weren’t counted. At Daniel Webster Elementary, 23.8 percent of Hispanics were eliminated.

All those exclusions have an impact on test scores. In a paper to be released in a few months, Ms. Booher-Jennings and Mr. Beveridge analyzed test scores for all Houston ISD schools. They found that if every Houston student had been tested – and all their scores counted – the district’s performance would have plunged.

Specifically, 37.7 percent of Houston schools would have fallen to a lower state rating because of lower reading scores. Nearly 28 percent of schools would have fallen because of math scores.

I don’t think all teachers give more attention to the “accountables.” And I don’t think the ones who do are evil, or even ill-intentioned. They’re just responding rationally to a system that has the incentives wrong.

Think about your own job. Imagine your boss told you that you were going to be evaluated only on your work with 80 percent of your clients, not on the other 20. Can you be sure you wouldn’t respond accordingly?

There are legitimate fairness issues about counting all kids. There are certainly some kids – the severely mentally disabled, for instance – who shouldn’t be counted. And it may not be fair for a school to be blamed for the poor performance of a child who enrolls 48 hours before test day.

But the current system leaves too much room for kids to be ignored.

This spring, Texas officials tried to gain even more wiggle room – asking the federal government for permission to ignore any kid who wasn’t enrolled in the same school district for two consecutive years. That would have eliminated another 10 percent of kids from the ranks of the counted. The feds said no.

This isn’t an attack on testing. If anything, it’s a validation. It’s proof that testing can be a powerful tool to improve learning. But that means a testing system should count as many kids as it can – not ignore the weakest.

Here’s the question. Is Texas’ testing system designed to give struggling kids the attention they need? Or is it designed to make the adults look good?