New state exam to get a test run; Now that TAAS is done, students will take early version of the TAKS

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Don’t put down those No. 2 pencils just yet.

Many Texas students probably thought that last week’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills was their last state test for a while. But sometime over the next three weeks, they’ll fill in one more bubble sheet.

And this time, it’s the test being tested, not the student.

Between Monday and May 10, every student between third and eighth grade will take an early version of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the test that will replace the TAAS next year.

The TAKS has been in development for nearly three years, and state officials have developed thousands of potential TAKS questions. But they can’t be on a real TAKS until they’ve been tested by real students.

“No Texas test has an item on it that hasn’t been field-tested by real Texas kids,” said Ann Smisko, the Texas Education Agency’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology.

Schools aren’t being told when to give the test, except that it must be in a three-week window ending May 10. Each grade within the school will have to take the TAKS in one subject area – just math or just social studies, for instance.

Any student hoping to peek at the test of the kid sitting next to him will also be out of luck. More than a dozen different tests will be distributed in each classroom so that a maximum number of test questions can be tested at one time.

“I’m very thankful to give students the opportunity to see what the test is like,” said Sheila Maher, principal at Creekview High School in Carrollton. “It will help when we talk to them about the test next year, because they’ve all grown up with TAAS and this will be a new experience.”

Once all the tests are completed, they’ll be graded, and those results will be used to create statistical analyses of each test question. They’ll detail how many students answered each question correctly, along with what alternate answers appealed to those who got it wrong. Committees of educators will meet this summer to look at the data and start choosing which questions will make it onto a real TAKS.

That’s when the questions start being asked: Does this item work? Does it test what the TEA thinks it tests? Is it fair?

“If an unusually low number of students are getting a question right, we try to figure out why that is,” said Muffet Livaudais, TEA’s director of English language arts curriculum, who will sit in on all the TAKS test selection meetings for reading and writing. “What was wrong with the question that drew students to a particular wrong answer?”

Dr. Livaudais said the data can be used to see what questions the top test-takers – the ones who get nearly every question right – got wrong. “That’s a red flag that there might be something wrong with the question,” she said. Statistics are also broken down by race, ethnicity and economic class, so if there’s a cultural bias in a question, it can be smoked out.

All that information is for TEA’s purposes, not the school’s. Schools and students will never learn how they did on the field test.

“We’d love to see the results, but we don’t expect to after a field test,” Dr. Maher said.

But she said the test can give students and teachers a valuable window to what will be coming for real next spring. “For the teachers serving as proctors, they can see how the test is designed, what the instructions are,” she said. “They can see what students’ reactions are to the test: ‘That was easy; that was difficult; gee, I’ve never heard of this.'”

TEA officials field-test new test items every year. But for the last decade, they’ve simply included the new questions in the body of the regular TAAS students have taken. (The new items aren’t counted toward a student’s TAAS score.)

But this year, the new TAKS questions are so different from the TAAS that they couldn’t be readily included in the older test. For instance, TAKS math questions often aren’t multiple choice. They require students to complete their own calculations and fill in their response in the bubbles of an answer sheet – bubbling in “8” and “6” if the answer is 86 instead of just choosing A, B, C or D. That sort of question couldn’t be tested with a standard TAAS answer sheet.

“These items look so different,” Dr. Smisko said. “They cover different subjects at different grade levels than TAAS. They can’t be on the same test.”

The mix of questions on the TAKS isn’t the only thing still unknown about the new test. State officials haven’t determined what the passing standard will be, or how schools will be held accountable for their students’ TAKS performance. Those issues will be hashed out by the State Board of Education over the rest of the year.

One thing that is certain: The test will be harder than the TAAS. Using a crude system to estimate how students would have done last year if they’d taken the TAKS instead of the TAAS, state officials estimated that only 39 percent of eighth-graders would have passed all portions of the test. Sixty-eight percent of them passed all portions of the TAAS.