TAAS’ time isn’t up; For about 10,000 seniors, test very much in the here and now

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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For more than a decade, it roamed the Texas countryside, threatening doom for the state’s children. The scrawniest 8-year-old to the burliest teenager alike feared its wrath.

It could suck the very future out of a child!

Finally, after years of struggle, the mighty monster fell. Parents across the state breathed an exhausted sigh of relief – their little boys and girls were safe. But at 9 a.m. today, thousands of students will discover the awful truth: TAAS lives!

OK, so maybe the 1950s Bela Lugosi slasher flick metaphor is a bit over the top for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. But the TAAS – presumed dead since 2002 – in fact lives on for about 10,000 high school seniors.

“These are kids who have jobs, who maybe have kids of their own, who have lots of other things to deal with,” said Juan Hernandez, a counselor at North Dallas High School, where 92 seniors still have to pass TAAS to graduate. “We want to get all of them over the bar.”

The last time TAAS was given to a wide audience was 2002. Last year, it was replaced by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS.

Passing all three sections of the 10th-grade TAAS test (reading, writing, math) was required for graduation. So the last group of sophomores to take the test is the last group that will have to pass TAAS to graduate.

‘I have to pass it’

Most passed without much difficulty. But others have been retaking TAAS since. Those sophomores are now seniors, and they’re still trying.

“I have to pass it,” said Jasmine Aguillon, a North Dallas senior who’ll be taking the reading and writing TAAS tests this week. “Then I can rest for a little while.”

About 10,000 seniors are expected to retake the TAAS this week – writing today, mathematics Wednesday and reading Thursday. If they fail, they will get a final chance in April. Fail that, and they won’t be able to graduate with their classmates.

“These students are working very, very hard,” said Colleen Kelley, a North Dallas English teacher who works with the TAAS takers. “I think we’ll have a good showing.”

In a way, these seniors are lucky. The TAAS was a substantially easier test than TAKS, and it covered less material. (The graduation TAKS also covers social studies and science, for example.)

Almost 86 percent of students passed all sections of the exit-level TAAS in 2002. Last year, less than 50 percent passed the graduation-level TAKS.

“I feel sorry for the kids who have to take TAKS,” said Eliana Lopez, 17, a North Dallas High senior who still has to pass the writing portion of TAAS to graduate. “For me, TAKS is too much.”

The biggest obstacle at North Dallas High is the writing test. About two-thirds of the school’s students were born outside the United States, and many are recent immigrants whose command of English is still shaky. Ms. Kelley and other teachers have been leading one-to-one and small group sessions with the students in an effort to push them over the top.

“I have problem with language,” said Nasreen Yousafi, who has to pass all three sections of the TAAS to graduate this year. Her family fled Afghanistan under the Taliban; she arrived here in 2001 speaking no English. “I love school. I want to be teacher.”

Sticking around

There’s precedent for TAAS’ stubborn refusal to die. In the days before TAAS, there was TEAMS – the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills. Passing TEAMS was a graduation requirement until TAAS came along in October 1990.

But like some half-dead wraith, TEAMS hung onto existence with admirable fortitude. Students who had failed the exit-level TEAMS in the late 1980s were allowed to keep taking it until they passed.

Keep taking it they did. Texas finally put TEAMS to sleep in July 2001, when a few dozen stragglers took the final version of the test. Those stragglers were probably pushing 30 by then.

State officials say they expect TAAS will also have a lengthy afterlife. The test will still be given four times a year for the foreseeable future – long after the word “TAAS” joins “TEAMS” and “TABS” in the ashbin of Texas testing history.

As she prepared for the TAAS, Eliana knew she faced a complicating factor. She was pregnant, and her due date was Feb. 24 – test day.

A joking dispute emerged among leaders at North Dallas High. Principal Lynn Dehart was rooting for the delivery delay so the baby wouldn’t arrive until after the last bubble sheet was filled in. “But I wanted it to come before,” said Ms. Kelley, Eliana’s English teacher. “She needs to be able to concentrate and not have this baby kicking and distracting her.”

For her part, Eliana had hoped for the baby to arrive a few hours after finishing the test – thus relieving her of two burdens at once.

But nature intervened. Little Jonathan was born early, on Valentine’s Day. Needless to say, Eliana has been busy with motherly tasks, but she has tried to squeeze a few hours of study between diaper changes. This morning, she’ll tackle the writing portion of TAAS.

“I’m feeling good about it,” she said.