Sunday, July 8, 2001
Summer TAAS puts heat on test-takers
20,000 hope to pass exams this week
By Joshua Benton
Anxiety about passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills is part of being young in Texas.
Students worry about everything from acing long division to filling in the bubbles on their answer sheets correctly.
Most students – but not all – get the summer off.
“It’s a little weird to be worried about taking a test when everybody else is enjoying the summer,” said Veronica Pinales, 21, who will be among about 20,000 Texas students taking the TAAS this week. “Everybody’s having fun, and you’re studying geometry.”
In the decade since the TAAS arrived on the academic landscape, it has become the state’s dominant educational force. Many schools orient their spring semester to the test, conducting TAAS pep rallies, offering incentives for better student scores, and pulling out all the stops to improve performance.
There are no pep rallies and no extra after-school help for students such as Ms. Pinales. For them, the test is reduced to its barest essentials: a few hours at a desk, pencil in hand, future at stake.
“It’s just them and the test, without the hype,” said Scott Harris, principal of Dallas Can! Academy, a charter school that focuses on recovering dropouts and a site for the test.
The exit-level TAAS is given four times a year – in October, February and July, plus a testing date in May for graduating seniors and those already out of school. Tenth-graders take the test in February; if they pass all three sections – reading, writing and math – the TAAS becomes just a memory.
If they fail one or more sections, though, the retesting begins. The summer TAAS is their first chance at redemption. Of the 22,474 Texans who took the test in summer 2000, about 54 percent had just completed the 10th grade.
But some need more than two chances. They keep taking the test throughout high school, or even after they drop out. Students are allowed to take high school classes in Texas only until the end of the year they turn 21. But there’s no time limit for taking the TAAS – anyone without a high school diploma can take it.
A test away
Jesse August, 20, is one of those students. She moved to Texas from New York when she was a junior, so she had fewer chances to take the TAAS than her peers. She passed reading and writing, but math was a problem. She dropped out of Sunset High School as a senior, when family financial problems forced her to get a job as a waitress.
“I couldn’t pay bills and go to school at the same time,” she said.
She eventually enrolled at Dallas Can! to catch up on the class credits she had missed. She has now finished them; all that’s standing between her and a diploma is the math portion of the TAAS she’ll take Wednesday.
She took the test in May after only a day or two of preparation and came tantalizingly close: She scored 68. A 70 is needed to pass.
Now, she splits her days between working at Neiman Marcus, where she’s a credit analyst, and Dallas Can!, where she studies geometry and test-taking tips through computer software.
Ms. Pinales dropped out of Bryan Adams High School after her sophomore year, primarily because she thought she could get her credits more quickly at Dallas Can!, she said. But she, too, had trouble with the math section of the TAAS and got sidetracked academically.
She has completed all her coursework but still has the math test in her way. She has been taking a TAAS preparation class at El Centro College; on Wednesday, she’ll try the test for the fourth time.
“I feel more confident,” she said. “I’m gonna do it this time. I’m gonna pass it.”
The number of students taking the summer TAAS has been dropping in recent years, from 55,170 in 1996 to 22,474 last year. As the TAAS passing rate has increased, fewer students have needed more than one chance.
As might be expected by the different groups of students taking them, the passage rate on the summer TAAS is significantly lower than on the February TAAS, even though the tests have the same degree of difficulty.
Last year, 80 percent of 10th-graders passed all the TAAS tests they took in February. Only 46 percent passed all the tests they took in July, though many students were taking only one or two of the three exit-level tests.
But some teachers say that their students perform better in the summer, when the traditional TAAS buildup machinery isn’t in effect.
“Without all the pep rallies and the stress, a lot of them do better,” said Cheri Warner, director of curriculum and instruction. “For a lot of these kids, it’s the test anxiety that’s keeping them at 67 or 68 instead of 70, and a lot of that goes away in the summer.”
Changes in Texas education scheduled to take effect over the next few years could make the summer TAAS experience significantly more common.
The exit-level exam is the only “high-stakes” test in Texas – meaning it’s the only one whose failure holds students back. As a result, it’s the only one students retake in large numbers.
When the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, replaces TAAS in 2003, other grade-level tests will become “high-stakes,” starting with the third-grade test. As a result, many more students will have to retake TAKS, and the state expects to readjust its testing calendar to account for the change.
Although the new calendar has not been set, it is expected to include up to three testing dates each spring, with the first one likely to come around January.
The TAKS era also will change the exit-level test from 10th to 11th grade, giving students less time to retake the exam before graduation.
Ms. August and her fellow summer test-takers will find out in early August whether they passed. She’s not sure how she’ll do Wednesday – on her last practice test, she didn’t fare so well. But she is determined to pass eventually. October would be her next chance.
“I’m the type of person that if I don’t get it this time, I’ll keep going until I do,” she said.