TAKS exposes the grade divide; High schools rethink approach as new test shows performance gap

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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If there’s a red wine stain on your carpet, you’ve got two options.

You can scrub, scrub, scrub and do the hard work of getting it clean. Or you can just throw a rug over it.

For years, Texas has had a hidden stain: Its high schools have been weak performers. But the stain has been cloaked by the TAAS, which made high schools look better than they were.

The debut of the state’s new test, the TAKS, has pulled away the rug. Texas high schools scored poorly, with passing rates often 10 or 20 points lower than elementaries.

Now high schools have a lot of scrubbing to do.

“I’m worried,” said Carolyn Dowler, principal at Irving High School. “For some kids, it’ll mean six days of school every week. But we’ll do what we have to.”

Texas isn’t alone in this battle. The biggest gains in American education reform have mostly been in the lower grades, experts say. Teenagers are still a challenge.

“I think American high schools are in need of major reform,” said Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “For myriad reasons, we haven’t been as successful as we’d like.”

To understand why high schools’ problems have been hidden, you have to understand the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, which debuted in 1990.

TAAS measured only a basic set of skills ? more basic than what most educators would consider “on grade level.”

With each grade, the TAAS fell a little bit further behind grade level. The third-grade test, for instance, was a close approximation of what kids should know. But the high school test measured skills that students should have mastered in middle school.

“The old 10th-grade TAAS test, I think everyone pretty much admitted, was roughly an eighth-grade test of basic math and reading skills,” said Sandy Kress, a former Dallas school board president and Bush education adviser.

Since the high school TAAS expected less from students, it was easier for them to pass. Plus, students had to pass the high school TAAS to graduate, so students had a strong incentive to do well.

The result: Under TAAS, passing rates looked about the same in every grade. The passing rates in high schools, middle schools and elementary schools were within 2 percentage points of each other in 2002, TAAS’ final year.

The TAKS ? the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills ? is a different matter. It’s meant to be on grade level.

For the first time, high school students are being tested on high school material, such as biology, American history and algebra.

As a result, the TAKS is harder than the TAAS at all grade levels ? but for high schoolers, it’s much harder.

Last week’s statewide scores bore this out. On the TAKS reading, writing and math tests, the average passing rate for students in grades three to five was 86.4 percent. In grades six to eight, it dropped to 81.6 percent. And in high schools, it was 70.8 percent.

Those scores match up with criticism that, despite rapidly climbing TAAS scores over the last decade, Texas’ SAT scores are still low. Texas’ average SAT score last year (991) ranked 48th of the 50 states.

And the state is falling further behind, not catching up. In the last 10 years, the average SAT score in the United States has gone up 19 points. The average Texas score has increased only 12.

Why do they struggle?

Why do high schools underperform? Experts offered up a few reasons:

? High schools are too big. Some high schools, mostly in growing suburbs, are crammed with up to 4,000 students. At that size, it can be difficult to create an individual connection with kids. And with any organization that size, making substantial changes can be like trying to shove an elephant down a path.

“In a large school, you can’t get to as many kids who need help,” said Bobby Watkins, principal at The Colony High School, which has 2,000 students but had 3,000 a few years ago before a new school opened. “You can’t identify who needs help. They fell through the cracks.”

? There’s too much tracking. Unlike in lower grades where most students take similar classes, some high schoolers get put in boring, low-level classes with minimal expectations. It’s tough for those kids to pass a more strenuous test such as the TAKS.

“In most high schools, if you’re enrolled in freshman honors English, you’re expected to read more books, to write more short papers, maybe even to write a long research paper,” said Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a group that promotes high school reform. “If you’re in a lower-level language arts class, you’re reading less, you’re writing less and the material probably isn’t as interesting.

“If you were already behind, you will continue to fall further behind.”

Lower-level classes are often packed with worksheets and repetitive tasks, which are unlikely to inspire students. They are often taught by the least-experienced or weakest teachers, he said.

? High schools haven’t gotten enough attention. Most states have pushed for reform through their testing programs by holding schools accountable for how their students perform. But those have usually been focused on elementary and middle schools.

For instance, until this year, Texas students took the TAAS every year from grades three through eight. But they took the TAAS only once in high school, in 10th grade.

Parents tend to be more involved in their child’s education when they’re younger. If they are involved in high school, it’s often in sports or some other activity that isn’t purely academic.

“These kids have so many more things to do and look at and see and talk about,” said Norman Reuther, principal at Flower Mound High School. “Younger kids have a little more structure in their life. For high school kids, the distractions are monstrous and many.”

Funding issue

Dr. Tirozzi said only 5 percent of the federal funding that schools get to help at-risk children is spent on high schools. Superintendents usually have focused most of their resources on earlier grades.

“You do need to build that strong foundation,” he said. “But high schools need some of that attention.”

The weakness of American high schools is striking when compared with other nations. In 1995, a study called the Third International Mathematics and Science Study compared American fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders against other countries.

U.S. fourth-graders finished 11th of 25 nations tested in math. But eighth-graders dropped to 28th of the 41 nations tested. High school seniors finished near the bottom: 19th of 21, ahead of only South Africa and Cyprus. The drop-off was similar in science.

These problems haven’t gone unnoticed by state officials. On Monday, the Legislature passed a bill creating a high school initiative. The state will allocate $60 million over the next two years to finance the creation of “personal graduation plans” for students at risk of falling behind, including all students who fail the TAKS.

Districts will receive money if they draw up such plans, giving students access to accelerated instruction, online coursework and highly qualified teachers.

To combat tracking, Texas is requiring high school students to be on what’s known as the “recommended” graduation plan starting in 2004. It requires more classes in core academic subjects than the state’s “minimum” plan.

Schools are also trying their own methods. At South Grand Prairie High, the school is divided into five academies, which function as small schools within the 2,500-student campus. It makes education more personal, principal Roy Garcia said.

At The Colony High School, teachers are experimenting with joint history/English classes to improve communications and show students the connections between the things they learn.

It’s that sort of experimentation that Texas probably will be seeing more of in the next few years, as high schools grasp at ways to bring scores up to par.

“It’s not going to be easy or painless over the next five years,” Mr. Kress said. “But these are changes that absolutely have to be made.”