Column: TAKS scores panic? Some rules on whether to worry

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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John Dewey, the philosopher and educator, once said that standardized tests reminded him of “the way they used to weigh hogs in Texas.”

“They would get a long plank, put it over a crossbar and somehow tie the hog on one end of the plank,” he said. “They’d search all around till they found a stone that would balance the weight of the hog, and they’d put it on the other end of the plank.

“Then they’d guess the weight of the stone.”

It’s a joke worth remembering: Test scores are always imprecise, confusing and open to interpretation.

On Friday, state officials dumped the first major load of Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores on an unsuspecting public. Once all the figures become available this week, The Dallas Morning News will tell you how your local school districts performed on the new state test.

Chances are, the numbers you see will be smaller than you’re used to. But you might not know whether to be alarmed.

So today we offer a miniguide to help parents cope with some reactions they might have in the new TAKS world. In short, here’s how to know when to panic and when to think twice before calling for your superintendent’s head.

Reaction No. 1: My school’s scores dropped! They must be doing an awful job!

Yes, just about everybody’s passing rates fell, some more than others. On average, rates fell most in high schools and schools with more poor kids; well-off suburban schools and elementary schools dropped less.

But the TAKS is a much tougher test than its predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, and a drop is only natural. (Texas’ dirty little secret for years has been that the TAAS just wasn’t very hard; the graduation test was at about an eighth-grade level.)

If you want to judge your school’s progress since last year, ask the secretary for something called TAAS equivalency scores. That’s the state’s rough estimate of how a school would have performed if kids had taken the TAAS this year. Even schools that saw big drops might show gains on TAAS equivalency scores ? which means they’re still improving.

Reaction No. 2: But wait, I thought my school was exemplary!

That old ratings system is so 1990s.

With the new test, the state is pulling together a new way to label schools. It should be ready in November. Meanwhile, there won’t be any new school ratings until 2004. Technically, exemplary schools will keep the title until then.

But if the new definitions of exemplary and recognized are anything close to the old definitions, you’ll see a massive drop in the number of highly rated schools. It’s a real-estate agent’s nightmare ? suddenly that nice, neocolonial four-bedroom, two-bath isn’t quite as attractive, now that its neighborhood school has dropped from exemplary to acceptable.

Remember: A new label doesn’t mean your school suddenly became delinquent. It just means it’s being held to a higher standard.

Reaction No. 3: These passing rates will get better quickly, right?

Don’t bet on it. Under TAAS, passing rates climbed a steady three points a year or so, and Texans got used to the drumbeat of good testing news every spring.

The beat will sound a little different over the next two years. See, the State Board of Education didn’t want to inflict all the pain of the new test at once. So it decided to make passing this year’s TAKS artificially easy. It’ll get tougher each of the next two years.

For instance, eighth-graders could pass the math TAKS this year by getting 24 of the 50 questions right. Next year, they’ll need 27. In 2005, it’ll be 30.

That means that if 2005’s eighth-graders perform exactly as well as this year’s did, their statewide passing rate will drop 21 percentage points. So hold off on that champagne. Teachers will have to draw significant improvement out of their kids just to stay even.

Reaction No. 4: My kid’s just finishing his sophomore year, and he didn’t do well on the TAKS. Should I be worried?

Unfortunately, worry would be appropriate. This year’s sophomores are the first class that will have to pass all four sections of the 11th-grade TAKS to earn a Texas high school diploma. Only 52 percent managed to pass all sections of this year’s 10th-grade tests.

This will be the biggest Texas education story of 2005. Other states ? Massachusetts and Florida notably ? have seen major political upheaval when students run into tough graduation tests that leave thousands of kids without sheepskins and thousands of parents enraged.

And remember, the test just gets harder. If kids’ performance remains level, the passing rates for juniors are set to plummet over the next two years: 24 percentage points in math, 8 in English language arts, 12 in social studies and 20 in science.

If scores don’t improve in a hurry, it’s the proverbial train wreck waiting to happen.

Perhaps that’s not the happiest thought for the start of summer vacation, but the challenges of TAKS are just starting ? we’ll see over the next few years if Texas can meet them.