Bill may spell end of TAKS; High school exam would be replaced; some fault timing in special session

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It has taken five years for Texas high schools to get ready for the TAKS test.

It might take just a single 30-day legislative session to throw it away.

A little-noted section buried in the finance bill given final approval by the House on Wednesday would kill off the high school TAKS entirely. Its replacement: a new series of 13 course-specific tests tied to classes such as world geography and English II.

Some Texas education leaders say they’re astounded a decision so big could be made at a time when lawmakers are focused on things like whether to allow slot machines and how much to raise the sales tax.

“It’s a mistake,” said Sandy Kress, a former Dallas school board president and education adviser to President Bush. “We’ve spent so much time and energy over the last five years building this system up. To scrap it in a special session about school finance would be a serious, serious mistake.”

Although the proposed move survived in the House, its fate in the Senate is unclear.

The Senate education committee will take up its education proposal today.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who chairs the Senate education committee, declined to say whether she would support the change.

“The Senate is in deliberations about what its plan will include, and until it is fully vetted, I don’t know what form it will take,” Ms. Shapiro said through a spokeswoman. “There are many elements being considered, and the TAKS test is only one of them.”

TAKS history

The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills was authorized by the Legislature in 1999. Students in grades three through 11 took it for the first time last year, when it replaced the old TAAS.

Starting with this year’s junior class, high-schoolers must pass all four sections of the 11th-grade TAKS to earn a diploma.

One reason lawmakers are considering tossing the high school TAKS: Students haven’t done well on it. Last year, about half of all juniors failed at least one section. While this spring’s scores aren’t in yet, it’s expected that around 100,000 students will be at risk of not graduating next year.

“A lot of students are going to find themselves in an awkward position at the end of their high school career,” said Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, who said the expected high failure rate for juniors was a major reason he supported the change.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, whose name is on the amendment, and Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chairman of the House public education committee, did not return calls.

The bill would require the Texas Education Agency to have these new end-of-course exams – four in science and three each in English, math and social studies – in place by the 2008-09 school year.

Once the end-of-course tests were in place, students would have to pass at least eight – two in each of the four subject areas – to graduate.

Details unclear

It’s unclear what would happen until then. The bill says the TEA “may retain” TAKS and use it for calculating school ratings. The measure leaves the task of creating a transition plan to the commissioner.

DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the TEA and Commissioner Shirley Neeley, said the agency wouldn’t comment until a bill becomes law. “At this time, we’re just watching and providing support as requested,” she said.

Mike Moses, the Dallas superintendent and former state education commissioner, said that he is not pushing for a change but that he could be happy with either the TAKS or end-of-course exams. “I don’t have a problem as long as we don’t try to do both,” he said. “I think that would be too much testing.”

Previous exams

Texas has had end-of-course exams before. A biology test made its debut in 1994. Algebra followed the next year, and English II and U.S. history were added in 1998.

Proponents liked the way that the exams allowed evaluations of a specific class, since they were given as soon as the school term was over.

But end-of-course exams were never the focus of the state’s testing system. There were no penalties for schools or students who didn’t do well on them, and all but the algebra test were eliminated with the advent of TAKS.

Some have criticized the TAKS test as not being tied to specific coursework.

For example, the 11th-grade social studies exam includes some history material generally taught in eighth grade.

“I’d rather not wait a few years until we discover that students don’t know the material,” Rep. Hill said. “I’d rather determine what the problems are early on and work on fixing them.”

Less stressful?

A system of end-of-course exams could also ease the stress on high school juniors and seniors, since many of the exams required for graduation could be taken in ninth or 10th grade.

Mr. Kress and others said there are valid arguments for and against end-of-course exams. But they said schools and educators have spent too much time preparing for the TAKS graduation requirements to eliminate the test without careful thought.

“We haven’t given it a run to see how it’s going to work,” said John Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition. “I can understand why lots of people are focused on taxes and school funding. But this is a big deal, too.”

From his law offices in Austin, Mr. Kress said, “If I were a high school principal and I’d just finished going through what I’ve gone through in the last 18 months, I’d think somebody had slipped something in the Kool-Aid down here.”