TAKS stakes rising for fifth-graders; Next year’s students are first to need math, reading for promotion

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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You have to hope the fourth-graders at Rockwall’s Jones Elementary liked their teachers this year. They’ll be seeing them again soon enough.

The school is shifting its fourth-grade reading and math teachers up a grade next year – in part because school officials want to provide every advantage for a group of kids who will face obstacles unprecedented for Texas fifth-graders.

Next year, they’ll have to pass both the reading and math portions of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills to be promoted to sixth grade. So while school’s out across Texas, the state’s elementary schools are already searching for ways to clear the newest hurdle thrown at them.

In Rockwall, one solution is to move the teachers.

“These teachers already know the parents, they already know the kids, and they know exactly where they are,” principal Sylvia Miller said.

Next year also is the first time Texas students will have to pass a math test to be promoted to the next grade. When this year’s fifth-graders tried, 75,000 fell short.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Paula Moeller, the Texas Education Agency’s director of mathematics.

That means a new set of pressures for teachers. “You know that everybody’s looking at you,” said Jose Pinter, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher at Duncanville’s Hardin Intermediate.

Under the old TAAS test – which was retired in 2002 – there was plenty of pressure. But it was a diffuse pressure shared by all teachers in the tested grades. Under TAKS, certain grades come with special stresses.

Third grade went first. Starting last year, third-graders had to pass the reading test to be promoted to fourth grade. For thousands of teachers, springtime became a stressed-out push to get students above the testing bar on their second or third try.

This year, high school juniors and their teachers faced the pressure, as students were required to pass the TAKS graduation exam for the first time.

Fifth grade is next. This year, 79 percent of fifth-graders passed the reading test. They did slightly better on math – 82 percent.

Tougher standards

But next year, kids will have to answer more questions correctly to pass as Texas phases in tougher standards. By next year’s standards, the passing rate on both reading and math would have been 73 percent this year.

As with third-grade reading, students will have up to three chances to pass the fifth-grade exams. But that creates another wrinkle: To make room in the testing calendar for the retakes, the math test will be given three weeks earlier. The reading test will be given two months earlier.

Put it all together and it means less time to prepare for the same test and more questions to get right to pass.

Schools are reacting in a variety of ways.

Some, like Rockwall’s Jones Elementary, are looping teachers across multiple grades. Others are shifting away from having one teacher instruct students in all academic subjects. Instead, fifth-graders are taught by separate math, English, science and social studies instructors, who rotate from class to class.

“That departmentalizing is more common now than it used to be,” Ms. Moeller said.

Some educators also are recommending that schools scale back the amount of math review they do at the start of fifth grade.

“We’re suggesting they start immediately with new fifth-grade skills rather than review fourth-grade material,” said George Christ, an elementary math consultant for the Texas Education Agency’s Region 10, which includes Dallas.

He said such review material would include multiplying three-digit numbers and subtracting basic fractions.

The fifth-grade math TAKS also includes a large number of multi-step word problems, which can make strong literacy skills just as important as computation ability. “If kids can read well, they’ll do well on the test,” Mr. Pinter said. “It’s getting the right information out of the problem that’s key.”

It’s unclear how fifth-graders will react to the high-stakes exam.

“Fifth-graders are right in the cross,” said Wilma Cook, a math curriculum specialist in Fort Worth who taught fifth grade for a dozen years. “They’re just old enough to be independent but still too young to be the grown-up. You’ve got both sides.”

‘They feel the pressure’

Mr. Pinter said fifth-graders may feel the stress more than third-graders did with their high-stakes test. “Third-graders are innocent,” said Mr. Pinter, a former third-grade teacher. “They’re not afraid of making mistakes. Fifth-graders are more aware of their abilities. … They feel the pressure.”

One thing these kids have in their favor: They’re veterans of high-stakes tests. Next year’s fifth-graders are last year’s third-graders – the first class that had to pass that grade’s reading TAKS hurdle to be promoted.

They passed with flying colors. Ninety-four percent passed on the first or second try.

“These kids are so used to testing by now,” said Joyce Price, Hardin Intermediate’s principal.

This group – the senior class of 2012 – will get one more chance to be at the cusp of Texas education reform. In 2008, they’ll be the first class that has to pass eighth grade’s math and reading TAKS to enter high school.