By Joshua Benton
The TAKS test is only three years old, so it may seem a bit young to be starting a family.
But the state’s main standardized test is preparing to welcome three new tests into the world: TAKS-I, TAKS-M and TAKS-Alt. And you thought there were already enough acronyms in academia.
The three new sister tests promise to make an already confusing test landscape downright bewildering.
They are an attempt to satisfy federal requirements for special-education students and push Texas schools to raise their standards.
“There’s an increased focus on giving special-education students access to the regular curriculum,” said Cari Wieland, director of special-education assessment for the Texas Education Agency.
“We want special-education students to have the benefits of higher expectations. Not every student will be able to do it, but we want to get closer to that goal.”
Most Texas students will never take any of the new tests, but many of the state’s 500,000 special-ed students will.
Educators say they don’t know enough about the tests – which are still in early development – to judge their quality.
But at least one is hopeful.
“I’m looking forward to see what the future is,” said Cindi Walker, director of special education for Fort Worth schools.
Here’s an introduction to the three new members of the family:
The “I” stands for “Inclusive.” It’s a direct response to new federal requirements laid out in last year’s renewal of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. That’s the law that governs special-education policy nationwide.
The law now includes a basic requirement: If a state offers a test for mainstream students, it has to offer a corresponding test for special-ed students.
For most grade levels and subjects, Texas already meets that requirement. It gives the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to students in grades three through 11 in a variety of subjects. It gives the SDAA II – the second version of the State Developed Alternative Assessment – to special-ed students in most of those grades.
Most, but not all. There’s no SDAA II for science or social studies at any grade. And there’s no SDAA II for 11th-graders.
Enter the TAKS-I. It will be given in the grades where SDAA II isn’t, starting in February.
That’s just the beginning. The grand plan is to replace the SDAA II with TAKS-I in all grades and all subjects.
“We’re thinking of this as a kind of transition,” said Victoria Young, who directs the TAKS program for the Texas Education Agency. “We’re hoping we have a couple of years to take a look at this and see how it works.”
What makes the TAKS-I different? Its questions will be identical to those on the regular TAKS. The only differences: There’ll be fewer of them, and they’ll be printed in a larger size for students with visual problems. Some students will also be allowed to use instructional aids such as dictionaries during the test.
Unlike the SDAA II, for which a child’s required passing standard is set by his or her teachers and parents, TAKS-I will have a uniform standard for all students. Passing the TAKS-I will require the same level of performance as passing the regular TAKS.
That’s good news to federal officials, who have pressed Texas and other states to raise standards for special-ed students. New federal regulations require states to limit the number of children who are outside the state’s mainstream testing system.
The other big change will be that TAKS-I will only be given to special-education students who are performing on grade level. Students can currently take versions of the SDAA II that are at grade level or versions that are significantly easier, depending on the child’s ability.
The “M” stands for “Modified.” The TAKS-M will look a lot like the TAKS-I, but it will be given to children who are performing below their grade level. For instance, an eighth-grade special-ed student who is learning at a third-grade level would take the TAKS-M instead of the TAKS-I.
The TAKS-M will probably be used more often than the TAKS-I because most students in special education are behind their peers. Last spring, about 209,000 students took the math version of the SDAA II. Only about one-fourth of those were learning on grade level, according to state statistics.
The “Alt” stands for “Alternative.” TAKS-Alt is less a test than a tool that teachers can use to evaluate the most severely disabled children, those with serious cognitive disabilities. It will probably take the form of an online checklist, Ms. Wieland said.
Those students are currently evaluated with locally chosen assessments, many of which are designed by teachers or district staff members. New federal rules say those children must be evaluated with a state-developed tool.
The TAKS-I will debut Feb. 21. It’s still unclear when it will expand to other grades or when the TAKS-M and TAKS-Alt will follow. That’s because federal officials must approve the new tests, and negotiations are ongoing. Ms. Wieland said the transition wouldn’t be completed until 2007-08 at the earliest.
Even the names of the TAKS-M and TAKS-Alt could change during development, she added. “We’re still in the planning stages,” she said.
What’s also unknown is how these tests will be integrated into the federal and state school ratings system. SDAA II results are an ingredient in the current ratings system, and poor performance on the test has tripped up some schools seeking high ratings. State officials have said TAKS-I results won’t be counted against schools in 2006 but may be included in the system in future years.
But Ms. Walker said she hopes the new system provides a more unified system for testing, better tying the expectations of special-ed students to those of other children.
“We’ve got to be accountable for results, and TEA is really working to make sure those tests are aligned with each other,” she said.