1 in 6 area third-graders may be at risk on TAKS; Figures may provide ‘wake-up call’ on new reading test, official says

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Nearly 10,000 North Texas third-graders – about one in six – are at risk of failing the state’s new reading test, according to a Dallas Morning News survey of area school districts.

If they can’t pass the test, new rules could keep some of those 9-year-olds from advancing to the fourth grade.

But districts are having significant difficulty identifying who might fail the test – in part because they don’t yet know what score will be required to pass.

“It’s a tough issue because of all the unknowns,” said Brad Lancaster, assistant superintendent for learner services in Allen. “The panic is that this is a harder test, and we don’t know what it takes to pass.”

This year marks the debut of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the tougher state standardized exam. The test packs a special punch for third-graders: For the first time, a passing score will be required to advance to fourth grade.

Because of the high stakes involved, state regulations require districts to identify students who are at risk of failing and alert their parents. But each district is allowed to use its own method of picking out those weaker students.

In the 27 Dallas-Fort Worth area districts surveyed by The News, 9,941 students have been declared at risk. That’s about 17 percent of those districts’ 59,526 total third-graders.

If that percentage were applied to the state as a whole, more than 50,000 Texas third-graders would be at risk of failing.

“It may be a wake-up call to communities,” said Cloyd Hastings, director of assessment and accountability in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district. “It may be, ‘Gee, we did very well before and didn’t have large numbers failing. But things might be different on this new test.'”

Districts use the at-risk numbers to help determine which students need extra help before the test is given. Weaker students generally receive small-group reading training each day at school. In some cases, they were asked to attend summer school classes.

Since the accountability system began in 1994, the third-grade Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) has served as students’ first exposure to state testing. Passing rates on the reading test steadily improved over the years, from 76 percent in 1994 to 87 percent in 2002. Last year, about 34,000 third-graders failed the TAAS reading test.

How much tougher?

State officials promise that the new TAKS test will be tougher. The question is how much tougher.

Less than five months before the test is to be given, the State Board of Education still has not determined what score will be required to pass. The vast majority of teachers still have not even seen a complete TAKS test.

“I know it’s frustrating for educators not to know what the target is,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Some teachers said not knowing the passing standard has led to confusion over what to expect from students. “Children tend to perform up to the expectations you have for them,” said Sharon Metcalfe, a third-grade teacher at Carlisle Elementary in Plano. “But we need to know where to set them.”

District standards differ

The confusion is evident in the wide disparities between how districts identify which students are in TAKS trouble.

Take Allen and McKinney, neighboring districts in Collin County. They’re similar demographically, although McKinney is slightly more diverse and less wealthy. Both had passing rates on the TAAS reading test of more than 97 percent.

But Allen says that 19 percent of its third-graders are at risk of failing the test, while McKinney says less than 3 percent are.

That doesn’t mean Allen’s kids are worse-prepared than McKinney’s. It’s partially a signal that no one’s sure what to expect.

“We’d rather be safe than sorry,” Allen’s Dr. Lancaster said. “We’re casting a wider net than we normally would because of the uncertainty.”

On last year’s reading TAAS, Garland schools had a passing rate 11 points higher than Dallas schools. But Dallas says only 19 percent of its third-graders are at risk of failing the TAKS. Garland says 31 percent are.

“It makes me nervous that they haven’t sorted this out yet,” said Ruth Joseph, whose son, Harrison, is in third grade at Plano’s Haun Elementary. “They’ve been telling us our children would have to pass this test to go to the next grade since they were in kindergarten. You’d think they could have figured it out by now.”

Because of the different standards used, district results are not comparable to one another. Most use student results on the Texas Primary Reading Inventory, a test of students’ early reading skills, to make judgments. But districts are free to use student grades or other standardized test results as well.

Educators can expect some clarity to arrive Nov. 15, when the State Board of Education votes to determine the passing standard. The most commonly rumored standard is 70 percent, the same that the TAAS used.

But Ms. Ratcliffe said the board could make a more complex decision than setting a single cutoff. The board could set different passing standards for different grades or subjects. It could also decide to set the passing standard in third grade lower then in other grades because of the higher stakes.

Possibilities to advance

But even if students fail the TAKS test, they could still avoid repeating third grade. As soon as test results are back, failing students will be given intense reading instruction and then another chance to take the TAKS. If they fail again, they’ll be expected to attend summer school.

After that, they’ll get one final chance to pass the TAKS or a similar state-approved test in July. Fail that, and the child’s fate goes to a special committee composed of his or her parent, teacher and principal. If all three agree, the child can be pushed ahead to fourth grade.

“I really expect that by the time the child has had a number of opportunities to be successful on the test, you’ll see very few retentions,” Dr. Hastings said.