15% of fifth-graders down to one last chance on TAKS; Final shot to move on is this month; districts vow an all-out effort

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Ending social promotion isn’t turning out to be as easy as state education leaders may have hoped.

After two tries, about 40,000 Texas fifth-graders still haven’t passed the math and reading sections of the TAKS test. That means a summer full of stress and, for many, another year of fifth grade.

“These kids are trying so very hard,” said Jennifer Costa, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher at Irving’s Townsell Elementary. “It’s frustrating, but we’re going to keep working at it until these kids have the skills they need.”

There is still hope that some of the fifth-graders will pass on their third try later this month. But the large number of failing students, about 15 percent of the state’s fifth-graders, could weaken support for what has been a relatively peaceful adoption of high-stakes promotion tests for young children.

“Having accountability is good,” said Harley Eckhart, associate executive director of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The unusually high failure rate has forced some districts to reshuffle their priorities. In Irving, for example, district leaders originally planned to offer summer school for students in grades two through five. But when it became clear how many failing fifth-graders the district would have to deal with, officials decided they had to cancel summer school for second- and fourth-graders.

“We just didn’t have the resources to go beyond that,” said Cheryl Jennings, Irving’s director of elementary teaching and learning. “We had to give the fifth-graders attention first.”

Earning promotion

The testing requirements are part of the Student Success Initiative, which was one of the centerpieces of Gov. George Bush’s legislative agenda in 1999. The idea is to stop social promotion, the practice of pushing kids to the next grade even if they don’t have the necessary academic skills.

The high stakes have followed the Class of 2012 as it marches through the school system. In 2003, third-graders had to pass the TAKS reading test to advance to fourth grade. This year, fifth-graders have to pass the reading and math tests. In 2008, eighth-graders will also have to pass reading and math exams.

Students get three chances to pass: two during the school year and one in the summer.

Some educators recoiled at the prospect of such a high-stakes test for 8-year-olds. But third-graders had surprising success when the measure debuted in 2003. In the end, only about 5,000 students were held back, out of more than 290,000 third-graders statewide.

This year’s fifth-grade failure rate is much higher. TEA officials are still analyzing results from this spring’s tests and can’t say exactly how many students are still in TAKS limbo. But they announced Wednesday that about 34,000 fifth-graders have yet to pass the math test, along with thousands more on the reading test.

In the Dallas Independent School District, more than 30 percent of fifth-graders have yet to meet the TAKS promotion requirements.

Running out of time

Sue Harris, the Grand Prairie district’s executive director of planning and evaluation, said: “We’re not at a panic level, but we’re at a point where we need to re-evaluate what we do at that grade.”

At Grand Prairie’s Milam Elementary, 12 of the school’s 55 fifth-graders haven’t yet passed TAKS. “People are trying as hard as they can to keep up with the changes,” principal Michele Loper said.

There are a number of reasons for the poor performance. Most obvious is that fifth-graders must pass both math and reading tests, while third-graders have only a reading test to worry about. The state has also raised the passing standards required on the TAKS each of the last two years.

Mr. Eckhart also pointed to teacher training as a possible reason. In the years leading up to the debut of the third-grade test, the state paid for intensive training for reading teachers from kindergarten through third grade. The Legislature then cut funding for training teachers in higher grades.

“These are the same students who were the first to take the third-grade test, and they did well,” Dr. Jennings said. “Now they’re in fifth and they’re not passing. That just boggles my mind.”

Townsell Elementary put on a “bridging” ceremony last week to celebrate the transition fifth-graders will make to Sam Houston Middle School next year. School officials allowed all the students to participate, even though several still hadn’t passed TAKS and may not cross that bridge after all.

“It really pumped the students up and got them very excited about wanting to be middle-schoolers next year,” Ms. Costa said. “One of our parents said her boy came home after the ceremony just bubbling over with excitement: ‘I’m gonna pass that test!'”

Outcome expected

State officials said the lower fifth-grade performance is a natural part of the adjustment to a new system.

“The agency obviously wishes the passing rate was higher, but I don’t think it’s out of line with expectations,” TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.

She said scores will probably improve as time passes, as they have on previous state assessments as teachers get used to teaching topics on the test.

In any event, it’s likely that a majority of the children who haven’t passed TAKS already will have to repeat fifth grade. Under state law, they’re required to attend intensive summer school for the month of June, with many districts offering three hours of small-group instruction every day.

In Irving, for example, the district will be employing about 50 teachers for the failing fifth-graders’ summer school. During the regular school year, it employs about 140 fifth-grade teachers.

“We’re doing the very best we can,” Dr. Jennings said. “We love every one of those children, and we want to see them all pass.”

After summer school, students will have one final chance to pass the TAKS tests: June 28 for math, June 29 for reading.

But even strike three won’t mean they’re out. A special committee made up of a student’s parent, principal and teacher can decide to promote the student anyway if they decide the youth’s academic performance was strong enough to justify it. In 2003, 41 percent of third-graders who failed TAKS three times were still promoted to fourth grade. In some districts, the rate was more than 80 percent.