It’s TAKS time for schools; State estimates say tougher test could mean many failures

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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A new hurdle to high school graduation goes up on Tuesday.

That’s the day 11th-graders will take the first Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. State estimates say almost 150,000 of them could fail the test. Starting next school year, students will be required to pass it to receive a high school diploma.

“Panic is not something we want right now,” said Beverly Weldon, the regional testing coordinator for schools in the Dallas area. “But the results will not be what we want them to be.”

In all, about 1.3 million students in grades 4, 7, 9, 10 and 11 will be taking TAKS tests Tuesday. The tests being given this week all include some form of short-answer or essay questions, which take longer to grade than the multiple-choice format to be used on other TAKS tests given in April and May.

The TAKS tests are replacing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, which had been in place since 1990.

Anxiety about the new, tougher tests is high across the state, but perhaps nowhere more than in high schools. By the time the exit-level TAAS tests were sent to pasture last spring, they had become an easy hurdle for most Texas sophomores to leap. Last year, the statewide passing rates on the three tests – reading, writing and math – were all over 90 percent.

“It was easy,” said Daylon Carroll, 17, a junior at Duncanville High School. “You were basically being tested on things you learned in eighth grade.”

A different story

No one has taken a real TAKS test yet, but early indicators say it will be a different story. The state, using data gathered from field tests and old TAAS performance, predicts the majority of this year’s juniors will fail at least one portion of the TAKS.

The state predicts that 44 percent of students will pass the English language arts test, which combines elements of the old reading and writing tests. According to predictions, 58 percent will pass the math test, along with 73 percent on the science test and 92 percent on the social studies test.

“Do they want us all to fail or something?” asked O.J. Castaneda, another Duncanville junior.

Teachers have been spending the year warning students about how difficult the TAKS will be and how it will differ from TAAS.

“Misspelled words in your essay are not acceptable,” teacher Caressa Love told her junior English class at Duncanville High last week. “There’s no excuse for that on the TAKS.”

Ms. Love told the class that the easy practice TAAS essays they’d gotten used to hearing about were all gone: “Remember the rodeo story? The fish story? They’re gone, retired.”

She distributed a series of student essays written for a TAKS test run from last fall and let students know how each one was graded. Essays are graded on a scale from one to four, with four being best. Students turning in an essay receiving a one automatically fail the entire TAKS test, even if they answer every other question correctly.

“You should be able to get a two in your sleep – you’re good enough to do that,” Ms. Love told her class.

Her students listened attentively, but they knew that, at some level, they could rest easy: the TAKS is meaningless for them. While they’re the first class to take the new exit-level TAKS, they also took the exit-level TAAS last year. The 10th-grade TAAS was the test they had to pass in order to graduate.

Increasing difficulty

Duncanville officials say they’re trying to motivate juniors by telling them their transcripts will indicate how they did on TAKS.

“They’re using us all as guinea pigs,” said April Wesley, one of Ms. Love’s English students. “The sophomores will adapt to it, but I make fun of them about how we got it easy.”

There’s bad news for younger students, though: The test is just going to get harder.

Because officials feared that the TAKS would be too tough, the State Board of Education voted in November to raise the passing standard in increments. For instance, this year’s 11th-graders will need to answer 25 of the 60 questions on the math exam correctly to pass. Next year, students will need 29. In 2005, the cutoff will be 33 correct answers.

Officials predict that those incremental changes could lower passing rates by 7 to 27 percentage points over the next two years.

“The kids who were just really good guessers before, they’re going to have trouble,” Ms. Love said.

Taking stock

The state board is scheduled to re-evaluate the passing standards in July, when the results of all this year’s tests are in.

Geraldine Miller, who was nominated for chairwoman of the State Board of Education last week, said that if passing rates are very low, she would support considering lowered standards.

“In my opinion, we set a very reasonable cutoff score,” she said. “But if we have 50 percent failing, I think most of us on the board would be willing to revisit the issue.”

But Ms. Miller and others say they’re optimistic that the doom-and-gloom predictions will prove to be off base.

The biggest reason: The state’s projected passing rates are based on sample TAKS tests students took in 2002. Students and teachers knew there were no consequences tied to those sample tests, so many students didn’t exactly try their hardest.

“Those are the best estimates we have,” said Ann Smisko, the state’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology. “However, the experts also acknowledge they can’t quantify how much an effect motivation has. Some say it’s worth an extra 10 points; some say more.”

Optimists have some history to back them up. The last time Texas was in this situation was 1990, when the TAAS replaced an earlier test, the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills. At the time, using field test data, state officials predicted abysmal passing rates for the debut of TAAS: 60 percent for the reading test, 56 percent for writing and 42 percent for math.

The reality, when the first TAAS tests were actually taken: 73 percent for reading, 74 percent for writing and 60 percent for math. On average, the state underestimated the passing rate by about 16 percentage points.

“We needed to raise the bar from TAAS,” said Sue Calvert, Duncanville’s instructional principal. “But I have faith our students are going to be fine. We’re ready.”