By Joshua Benton
Bone-chilling excitement! Nerve-shattering suspense!
It’s the blockbuster thriller of the school year, the TAKS test — and it’s now playing in select classrooms near you.
Across Texas this week, 118,000 students are taking an advance version of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the state’s new standardized test. The early reviews are mixed.
“When it was over, the kids said, ‘That was hard! I’m tired!'” said Donna Rother, principal of Scott Johnson Middle School in McKinney. “But I feel good about the test. It’ll raise the standards of what we expect from our kids.”
State officials will be watching how students perform on the field test. Although the TAKS has been in development since 1999, it’s still unknown what score students will have to get on it to pass.
The State Board of Education will set that standard in November, using performance on this week’s tests as a guide.
“We’ll be able to bring the results before the board and say ‘This is how everyone did,’ so they can make the decision,” said Ann Smisko, the state’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology.
Only a fraction of the state’s 4 million students will be tested this week, including some at 268 schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Although the schools have to give up class time to give the test, some find it a worthwhile trade-off for a sneak preview.
“At first, we were worried about missing a day of instruction,” said Ms. Rother, who administered the seventh-grade reading test to a small group of students Tuesday. “But we realized our kids will be some of the few in the state that will have experience taking the test. And our teachers will be some of the few with experience administering it.”
The TAKS is expected to be significantly harder than its predecessor, the retired Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Starting in 2004, public schools will be rated based on how many of their students pass the TAKS.
Schools were told to give the test sometime this week, which means students will be taking it as late as Friday.
“We administered it just like we would the real McCoy,” said Kathy Kazanski, principal of Christie Elementary School in Frisco, which administered the Spanish version of TAKS to fourth-graders Tuesday.
This week’s tests are also a chance for schools to see some of the new test formats the TAKS will introduce. For example, students will be allowed to use a dictionary or a calculator on some parts of the test but not on others. Portions of the test booklets are fastened shut when the dictionaries are out.
This is the second time Texas students get a peek at the TAKS. In the spring, the Texas Education Agency gave sample TAKS questions to most Texas students of testing age.
But that round was designed mainly to judge the quality of potential test questions, not how students performed on them. Questions that proved inappropriately tricky or that appeared biased against a certain demographic group were tossed aside. Dr. Smisko said she did not know how many questions made the cut.
Like that last round of field tests, schools and students won’t be able to find out how they performed on this week’s tests. There will be no penalties or rewards for performance.