Social studies may hurt school ratings; TAAS scores in subject count for first time, so some expect to slip

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Jerry Cook has a PR job to do in the coming months.

The Duncanville school superintendent must explain to the public why his district will drop from “recognized” to “acceptable” in the state’s eyes, even though nearly all of its standardized test scores improved this year.

“It’s frustrating, but I hope parents will understand why,” Dr. Cook said.

The reason Duncanville will tumble: For the first time, results on the social studies portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills count toward district accountability ratings.

Traditionally, social studies scores have been the lowest among the five subjects on the TAAS. But until now, it hasn’t mattered much for districts – they were graded only on how their students did in reading, writing and math.

State officials predict that the number of Texas schools rated exemplary or recognized might drop this year for the first time, primarily because of social studies.

Based on this year’s preliminary TAAS results, Duncanville is one of at least three area districts expecting to drop a notch. Ennis and Ferris, both recognized last year, probably will also fall to acceptable.

“We just didn’t get the job done,” said Ferris Superintendent Larry Hairgrove. “It’s one score standing in our way.”

Those ratings may be simple adjectives, but they can have a big impact on communities. Homebuilders use the ratings to sell houses, and chambers of commerce use them to attract businesses. If a district gets a good rating, it often shows up on office stationery and marquees around the district.

The TAAS tests social studies only in eighth grade, which means the actions of a few teachers and students can affect an entire district.

“We’ve got seven teachers in the district who teach eighth-grade social studies,” Duncanville’s Dr. Cook said. “That’s a pretty high-stakes test for them.”

When districts learned in 2000 about the change, they began putting more emphasis on the subject, bringing in consultants, training teachers and trying to prepare for the added pressure.

Largely, it worked. The statewide passing rate for eighth-grade social studies jumped from 76 percent to 83 percent this year – the largest increase on any test in any grade.

“It is interesting: Whatever you put in the accountability system gets attention,” said Criss Cloudt, associate commissioner for accountability reporting and research at the Texas Education Agency.

In 2000, statewide social studies passing rates were 18 percentage points behind reading, 13 behind writing and 19 behind math. This year, those gaps closed to 11, 2 and 9.

North Texas’ two largest districts, Dallas and Fort Worth, experienced huge gains in social studies passing rates this year: 21 points in Dallas, 17 in Fort Worth.

“Traditionally, kids weren’t told social studies was a test they had to pass,” said Alecia Cobb, Dallas’ interim associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

The Dallas Independent School District estimated at the start of the school year that without improved TAAS scores, social studies would cause 11 of its campuses to be rated low-performing, the worst possible rating. An additional 15 schools were deemed at risk of receiving that rating.

After a massive “emergency intervention” campaign, none of the schools is on track to be rated low-performing. The preliminary results show that 77 percent of DISD eighth-graders passed the social studies test, up from 56 percent last year.

Such gains didn’t mean much to Ennis and Ferris. Their social studies passing rates increased this year, but both fell short of the “recognized” standard of 80 percent.

“We’re so close!” said Kathy Cikanek, Ennis’ assistant superintendent for instruction and assessment.

Ennis came tantalizingly close to the bar: 79 percent. “For so long, elementary teachers focused on reading and math, and it takes time to get past that,” she said.

But Ms. Cikanek has hope. The TAAS results that have been released to districts are not exactly what will be used to finalize school ratings.

These results include all students who took the test, but the rating system only counts students who were in a district from Oct. 26 through the end of the school year. That’s to avoid penalizing a district for the performance of any weak students who moved into the district a couple of weeks before the test.

So if a handful of Ennis’ eighth-graders get squeezed out when records are examined, that 79 percent could move up a hair, and Ennis could be recognized again.

In any event, Duncanville, Ennis and Ferris said they’ll focus on social studies even more next year in an attempt to raise scores.

In a way, the social studies boost shows the strengths and weaknesses of the standards-based education reforms Texas leaders have pushed for two decades.

Proponents of reform argue that if the state tests students and judges districts on their performance, schools will find a way to teach students more. This year’s gains in social studies scores support that thesis.

Opponents, however, argue that the accountability system shifts too much emphasis to some subjects and away from others. If, as Texas did until this year, schools are only judged on students’ performance in reading, writing and math, other subjects won’t get as much attention. That was the cry of social studies teachers throughout the 1990s.

“Because this was going to be the first year for social studies, we considered it a high-stakes test we needed to respond to,” said Hector Montenegro, Dallas’ deputy superintendent for instructional services. “If it had not been so urgent, we probably would not have responded so aggressively.”

Science is expected to be added to the accountability system in 2004. But there are no immediate plans to add any other subjects.

Because the state is introducing an untested standardized test next year, education agency officials are considering carrying over this year’s district ratings – due out in August – until 2004. They say the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, will add too many unknown variables in its first year and could make sensibly rating schools difficult.

Of course, that’s little consolation to superintendents in districts affected by social studies scores. They could be stuck with their “acceptable” tags for two years instead of one.

“We’ll try to explain to parents and the public that it’s just a matter of one test, and that we’re working on it,” said Dr. Hairgrove, the Ferris superintendent. “It just gives us another goal to meet.”