COLUMN: Legislators left unanswered questions on new state tests

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The TAKS test is dead. Long live the TAKS!

When legislators went home to their districts last month, the temptation must have been strong to proclaim loudly they had killed off the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Anti-testing sentiment in Texas reached new levels over the past year, and legislators had spent the previous months lined up to take whacks at the hated TAKS.

But the measure they ended up passing, Senate Bill 1031, doesn’t quite match that rhetoric.

First, the TAKS lives on as before in grades three through 8. And in high school, the TAKS is simply being swapped out for a network of 12 new tests. They’ll be given at the end of specific classes, like U.S. History or English II, and tied to their content. Students will have to average a certain score across the tests to earn a high school diploma.

Is this a revolution or something smaller? There’s a lot we don’t know at this point. The first new tests won’t be given until 2012, and there are a lot of decisions to be made between now and then.

The bill still awaits the governor’s signature. But as long as it marches forward, here’s what we can safely assume:

*The new system will increase the pressure on freshmen and sophomores. The TAKS currently has next to no impact on their lives. Those tests aren’t required for graduation; in most districts, they aren’t tied to students’ grades or anything else.

The result: Kids don’t try very hard. In most subjects, TAKS passing rates jump 10 percentage points or more from 10th to 11th grade.

But when those freshman and sophomore tests count toward graduation, even pouty 15-year-olds are likely to take notice.

*The new system will decrease the pressure on many juniors and seniors. Many kids will reach junior year secure in the knowledge they’ve already done well enough that it would take a major testing catastrophe to knock them off course. And for kids struggling to meet the new requirements, there will be more opportunities for retests and do-overs than ever before.

(One likely exception: Students who don’t take one of the tested courses until senior year. For instance, many schools consider physics a senior course – which could leave students with their first crack at a very high-stakes test just days before graduation. Now that’s pressure.)

*All else equal, scores will go up – because kids will be more motivated. Along with the graduation implications, the new tests will count as 15 percent of students’ final grades in their high school courses. So a kid who bombs the biology test could be turning his C- into an F. That’s another incentive to perform – and that’ll push scores higher.

*The end of the year will be less meaningless. The date of the test will be pushed back to the first full week of May. That’s about three weeks after the current TAKS test days. That should limit the amount of lazy post-TAKS time, which in some schools gets treated as an early start to summer vacation.

Beyond those broad brushes, there’s a lot still to be determined. Here’s some of what we don’t know:

*Will the new tests be easier or more difficult than the current TAKS? While the pressure to pass may be reduced, that doesn’t mean the tests will be any easier. The law is silent on matters of difficulty, which will be left up to the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education. If anything, by being attached to a specific course, the new tests could be more in depth than their predecessors.

*How will this all play with No Child Left Behind? The feds will have to approve the new system – and they may put up a fight on a few issues, such as comparability across grade levels.

*Will it make life tougher for older immigrant students? Under the current system, a high school-age kid arriving from Mexico generally gets assigned to ninth grade. That lets him have a couple of years of adjustment – language and otherwise – before he has to face the big, scary graduation test.

But the new system would give those kids high-stakes tests within a few months of arrival. Most won’t speak English, but Texas traditionally doesn’t provide Spanish-language versions of high school tests. How will Texas deal with them?

And a related issue: What will happen to a kid whose family moves to Texas at the start of his senior year? At the moment, it’s not too complicated: He can bang out the graduation TAKS tests in a few days and be cleared for graduation. But will he now have to take 12 tests, including some on subjects he hasn’t studied in years?

*Will the new tests really create an easier route for less ambitious students? In the current system, every kid in Texas takes the same TAKS and has to reach the same standards. (I’m excluding special-ed kids here.) But the new law actually allows kids taking a less ambitious course schedule to take fewer end-of-course tests than their peers.

For example, under the state’s minimum standards, world history, Algebra II and physics aren’t actually required courses for graduation. And kids who don’t take those classes won’t have to take the tests that go with them. Will Texas really go through with having different testing standards for different kids?

*What kind of an impact will the tests have on how schools grade their students? Will schools with lenient grading policies toughen them up when they realize their B and C students are failing the end-of-course tests?

*And finally: What will the new tests be called?

If history is any guide, it’ll be an acronym that starts with T; Texas has now lived through the TABS, TEAMS, TAAS and TAKS. Just calling them “End of Course Exams” seems downright graceless.

Here’s hoping they can come up with something better than Virginia, the state whose model Texas is in many ways following with these changes. They call theirs the Standards of Learning tests, or SOL.

As you might imagine, that acronym has been assigned a different meaning by more than one frustrated student.