And then there were three…; Students who fail TAKS get fewer retest chances to graduate on time

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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For 63,984 members of the Class of 2005, it was the first last chance.

That’s how many of Texas’ rising seniors failed at least one section of last year’s Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. This week, many of them filed into their high schools for another stab at it.

“We’ve been working very hard to prepare our students for this,” said Sarah Cook, a U.S. history teacher at Rockwall High School. “We’ve been targeting them individually. We’re hoping for 100 percent passing.”

They are the first class that has to pass all four sections of the TAKS – English language arts, math, science and social studies – to graduate on time.

There’s a bit more pressure on this year’s seniors than on their predecessors. Under TAKS’ precursor, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the graduation test was given at the end of 10th grade. That meant failing students had two years – and up to eight retests – to get over the passing bar.

But the TAKS exit-level test is given at the end of junior year, which means this week’s tests were one of only four chances they’ll have to try again.

“I haven’t seen too much stress,” said Neil Wellman, Lewisville’s director of assessment. “It’s not their last chance yet. They’ve still got time.”

This spring’s battle for status as “most difficult test” ended in a virtual three-way tie. English language arts, math, and science all had between 28,000 and 34,000 students fall short of state standards. That’s out of roughly 217,000 students tested.

Students fared the best on the social studies test. Only 6,300 failed statewide.

Many schools have been offering help for students preparing for the test – ranging from standard summer-school classes to small-group tutoring.

State rules for remediating those who fail the high school test aren’t as strict as those for third-graders. (Third-graders must pass the reading TAKS to be promoted to fourth grade, with some exceptions allowed. It’s the only other high-stakes test for Texas students.)

Districts are required to offer accelerated instruction to third-grade students who have twice failed the reading TAKS. There’s no such requirement for juniors, and many schools offer no specialized TAKS instruction during the summer leading up to the test.

“Our district left it up to individual schools whether or not to provide tutoring in the summer,” said Cindy Bauter, testing coordinator at Lewisville High School.

Lewisville High did not provide tutors, she said. But the state does provide review booklets to all failing students for their own individual study, she said.

Many of the students being tested didn’t fail on their first try – they simply didn’t show up. In Rockwall, for example, 42 of the 192 students eligible to retake TAKS this week were absent when the tests were first given in the spring.

It remains to be seen how well students will perform. Just over half of the retakers failed only one of the four sections, and many of those missed by only a few test questions. But about 10,000 students failed three or four sections – and, in most cases, have a lot of work ahead of them.

Results from this week’s tests should be reported back to schools in about two weeks.