New TAKS scores worry school officials; 1 of 4 fifth-graders fails reading, but districts may still promote

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Giving a high-stakes test to 10-year-olds is proving more complicated than state officials may have expected.

One of every four fifth-graders failed the TAKS reading test last month, officials announced Friday. That’s slightly better than last year. But this is the first year students have to pass the test to be promoted to sixth grade.

“We are concerned,” Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “We’re going to have to do some analysis on the data and see what action we may need to take.”

But if experience is any guide, some schools will still find ways to promote even the lowest-performing students. In some school districts, more than 70 percent of students who have failed the TAKS three times still end up advancing a grade – despite state officials’ proclamations that social promotion has ended.

This year’s fifth-grade scores were disappointing in districts across the state. In Dallas, 55 percent of fifth-grade students passed the test. In Grand Prairie, it was 74 percent.

“We had hoped it would be much higher,” said Sue Harris, Grand Prairie’s executive director of planning and evaluation. “But it looks like lots of people in the state were functioning at about the same level.”

Texas’ efforts to end social promotion began in 2003, when third-graders were first required to pass the TAKS reading test to move on to fourth grade. This year, the requirement extends to the fifth-grade reading and math tests. In 2008, eighth-graders will also have to pass the reading and math TAKS.

In all the affected grades, students get three chances to pass the TAKS. But even students who fail three times have one final opportunity to be promoted. For each failing student, schools assemble a grade placement committee, made up of the child’s teacher, principal and a parent.

If all three agree the child should be promoted, he is.

Safety nets?

The grade placement committees were meant to provide a safety measure for good students who, for some reason, had trouble with the test. But their local nature also allows districts to have wildly varying standards about who gets promoted and who gets held back.

For example, in the Ector County ISD, 43 third-graders failed the 2003 TAKS test three times. But according to state data, 35 of them – 81 percent – were promoted to fourth grade anyway.

Contrast that with McAllen schools, where 74 students failed TAKS three times. Only five of those were promoted to fourth grade.

In 2003, Waco promoted only 16 percent of its TAKS-failing third-graders, one of the lowest totals in the state.

“We just don’t believe promoting kids who can’t do the work helps them,” said Marsha Ridlehuber, Waco’s assistant superintendent for accountability.

Grand Prairie doesn’t promote many of its test-failing third-graders – about 22 percent in 2003. Ms. Harris attributed that to the close work the district does with the parents of struggling students.

“We keep the parent involved with us all the way through, so that when the kid doesn’t do well, the parent realizes the kid does need more work and is cooperative,” she said.

Wendy Hines, executive director of elementary education in Ector County schools, said there was no conscious push to promote more than four-fifths of its TAKS-failing third-graders.

“Those decisions are made at the individual campus, based on what’s best for the child,” she said.

Districts at both ends of the spectrum are acting within their rights. “These decisions are local decisions,” said Ms. Culbertson, the TEA spokeswoman. “There are guidelines that have to be followed, but each decision is made for an individual child.”

But the wide disparities between districts are surprising to some educators.

“I’d just assumed everyone was going to do what we do and believe in ending social promotion,” Dr. Ridlehuber said.

Disappointing outcome

The low scores of this year’s fifth-graders were particularly disappointing to officials because the same students had performed well under pressure before. This year’s fifth-graders were the first group to take the high-stakes TAKS as third-graders two years ago and scored surprisingly well.

“We need to see if the students who didn’t do as well this year were the same ones who did well before, or if they were new to Texas schools,” Ms. Culbertson said.

Fifth-graders will get two more chances to pass the reading test this year, and history has shown that many are likely to improve their scores. Last year, 89 percent of students passed the high-stakes third-grade reading test on the first try. But about half of those who failed passed on their second attempt.

On the other hand, fifth-graders also have the math test to worry about. This is the first year Texas has required any of its students to pass a math test to be promoted.

The fifth-grade math test will be given April 5, with the first retest of the reading test coming two weeks later.