Schools brace for tougher TAAS, lower passing rates; Higher standards make it ‘kind of scary’ for districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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For many parents and school officials in North Texas, last week brought the latest in a long line of good news: Passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills went up, just as they have every year.

School leaders were quick to praise the students, teachers and administrators who worked to boost scores once again.

But many know they won’t be able to enjoy these gains for much longer. Starting in 2003, when a tougher version of TAAS goes into effect, scores are likely to reverse course, if only temporarily. That same year, the state’s push to end social promotion goes into effect, keeping some students from continuing on to the next grade.

Last month, state officials sent school districts estimates of how many of their students would have passed the TAAS this year if they were taking the 2003 version of the test. Passing rates plummeted, sometimes by 20 percentage points or more.

Districts are preparing for the backlash they expect in two years.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Michael Killian, Lewisville’s deputy superintendent. “I don’t think that a lot of legislators really realize the potential impact of what could happen in 2003. I don’t know if they realize how many kids will suddenly be in trouble. For some of their sake, I hope it’s not an election year.”

The new tests, tentatively called TAAS II, will mean more testing in more subjects. The new test will complete Texas’ transition away from its old state curriculum standards, known as the Essential Elements, to the new, more rigorous Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).

TAAS II will require more of students at all grade levels from third grade to the exit-level test. That exit test will move from 10th to 11th grade, and students will still have to pass it to receive a high school diploma. The exit-level test, for example, will test students on algebra, chemistry and physics.

TAAS II is still in development, so it’s hard to estimate how difficult it will be to pass. But state officials estimate that any student who gets 70 percent of the questions correct on the current TAAS is a strong bet to be able to pass TAAS II. (Students are now required to answer anywhere between 45 percent and 70 percent of questions correctly, depending on the grade level and test being given.)

Unfortunately, those students aren’t as common as districts would like. State passing rates for all tests would drop between 15 percentage points and 30 percentage points in each grade if the 70 percent standard were applied.

“We know we still have a lot of work to do,” said Diane Frost, language arts and testing coordinator for Carroll ISD.

TAAS scores have always been a high-stakes game for schools and districts, whose state accountability ratings depend in large part on their students’ scores. Besides the exit-level TAAS, which is required for graduation, third-, fifth- and eighth-graders will have to pass portions of TAAS II during the next decade to advance to the next grade.

Because of those higher stakes, districts have already started crunching numbers to estimate how their students will do come 2003.

“It’s extremely difficult because we don’t know the exact content of the test,” said Michael Strozeski, Garland ISD’s executive director of planning, research and evaluation. “We don’t know how the questions are going to be asked. We don’t know how hard it’s going to be. We just know it’s going to be harder.”

Districts have been working to prepare for the new test since it was announced. While the test’s exact details are still unclear, the state-required skills they are based on took effect in 1998.

“The state has published the new objectives. They aren’t a big secret,” said Lori Nebelsick-Gullett, Richardson’s executive director of student performance.

In Arlington, officials are getting ready to train teachers on the new objectives.

“When you have a higher standard, revised objectives and a new exam all at one time, it complicates things,” said Marcelo Cavazos, Arlington’s associate superintendent for instruction.

Bill Adkins, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Allen, said the district will send out a newsletter to parents next year, explaining how state assessment testing will change and how it might affect scores. He said officials aren’t worried about a decline.

“As long as our teachers are teaching the curriculum that the state requires, it doesn’t matter if it’s TAAS II or TAAS III or TAAS IV or whatever,” he said.

The state’s estimates show there is still much work to be done. The students who just finished eighth grade in Texas will be juniors in 2004, the second year the exit-level TAAS II is given. But they’ll be the first class that will be required to pass the tests to get a high school diploma.

This year, eighth-graders took tests in each of the subject areas that will be included in TAAS II. Only 68 percent of students passed all five tests – reading, math, writing, science, and social studies.

But if they had been required to get 70 percent of questions correct on each test, only 39 percent would have passed.

Dr. Killian and others said that preparing parents for lower scores will be one of the major tasks of the next few years, particularly in districts with historically high scores, where the community might protest sudden declines.

“I think you begin communicating with parents now, saying this is a standard you want your child to reach,” Dr. Frost said.

In some suburban districts, the progress has grown slower in recent years, as districts have reached passing rates in the 90s and have less room to improve.

“No matter what we do, the passing scores will be lower than they currently are,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. “And that alone will be a harsh reality for a lot of people.”

Staff writers Katie Menzer and Jason Trahan contributed to this report.