Texas students about to face a higher academic threshold; Educators brace for more failures under tough new TAKS test

By Joshua Benton and Terrence Stutz
Staff Writers

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The last time Texas students had to adjust to a new state test, they stumbled.

It was 1990, and the outmoded Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills, or TEAMS, had just been put out to pasture. Its new, tougher replacement: an up-and-comer called the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

Overnight, the statewide failure rate doubled.

Twelve years later, the TAAS is being retired. This spring, a new test – the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS – will debut. Not unexpectedly, some are worried about making the transition.

“It certainly has our attention,” said Robin Ryan, principal of Carroll High School in Southlake. “There’s no question the passing rates will decrease.”

The TAKS is the most prominent change Texas public school students and teachers will have to deal with this year, but it’s not the only one.

Among the other changes: the launching of a new initiative against social promotion; new rules promoting physical education in elementary schools; banning sales of junk food during certain parts of the school day; and a new health insurance program for teachers.

The new test, in development since 1999, will be the most visible.

“The timing was right to do this,” said Felipe Alanis, the state education commissioner. “We had maxed out on the TAAS.”

The TAAS was criticized as too basic, too easy to pass. It didn’t test higher-order thinking skills, critics said. The same complaints were levied against the TEAMS test when the TAAS was introduced.

The TAKS tests more subjects in more ways and in more depth than the TAAS. For example, the high school math TAKS will include elements of algebra and geometry for the first time, and some of the questions will require a written answer rather than a fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice.

The State Board of Education won’t set the test’s passing standard until November, so it’s impossible to predict how students will perform. The Texas Education Agency has tried to guess, using a rough calculation and last year’s TAAS data.

The results weren’t promising. They predicted that only 43 percent of Texas eighth-graders would have passed all sections of the TAKS this year, including less than one-third of minority students. Seventy-two percent of eighth-graders passed all sections of the TAAS.

Even top-notch schools are at risk. Carroll Middle School had nearly 99 percent of its eighth-graders pass all tests this year. The state projects that would be 81 percent under TAKS.

But some remain optimistic that schools will rally to the occasion.

“Texas is in the spotlight,” said Karen Neal, principal of Pearce High School in Richardson. “Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I believe most schools are going to do better than people expect.”

A grace period

The new test won’t have an immediate impact on school and district ratings. The state has decided to give districts a one-year pass, of sorts.

Their 2002 ratings, announced last week, will stick for two years as the state agency figures out how it wants to judge schools under the new system.

Students won’t get the same grace period. The impact of the change will fall squarely on the state’s 320,000 third-graders. For the first time, Texas will require students to pass an exam – in this case, the reading TAKS – to be promoted to the next grade.

“The new requirement is going to make a lot of people nervous,” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “But you have to ask: ‘How can we allow these kids to go on to the fourth grade without knowing how to read?'”

Former Gov. George W. Bush called for an end to social promotion – passing students to the next grade even if their grades don’t warrant it – in his 1998 re-election campaign. He cited figures showing that as many as 90 percent of third-graders who failed the state’s reading exam were still being promoted to fourth grade.

Schools have been preparing this year’s crop of third-graders for the new standards since they entered kindergarten. Texas teachers have attended special training sessions to improve their instructional techniques, and students behind in reading have been given help.

But still, 13 percent of last year’s third-graders failed the TAAS, an easier test than they’ll take this year.

Critics: Stakes too high

This year’s third-graders had better get used to being on the vanguard of social-promotion reform. The new rule will be expanded to fifth and eighth grades in 2005 and 2008 – as soon as that group arrives.

The program has been controversial, particularly among some who say the stakes shouldn’t be so high for a new test that has never been given to Texas children.

Critics did win one concession: There will be an escape clause for students who fail the TAKS reading exam twice. Those students can still be promoted if they pass an alternative exam approved by the state or if the child’s principal, teacher and parents agree that the student should move to the fourth grade.

TEA officials will monitor the number of students who are promoted without passing a test to make sure there are no abuses in granting such exceptions.

For high-schoolers, the stakes aren’t as high – this year. The exit-level test, which must be passed for a student to graduate, is being moved from 10th to 11th grade. But this year’s juniors already took the exit-level TAAS last year, so they won’t be required to pass the harder test as well.

It’s unclear whether students, still holding onto the dying days of their vacation, are aware of the magnitude of changes coming this school year.

“Our kids are 15 and 16,” said Mr. Ryan, the Carroll principal. “It’s summer. The TAKS test is not foremost on their minds.”