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Texas Officials Modify State Assessment To Minimize Ways To 'Teach to the Test'

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Concerned that their state's testing program is having too strong an influence on curriculum and instruction, Texas officials are revising their tests to minimize "teaching to the test."

Under the new policy, scheduled to go into effect in October 1990, the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimal Skills will test students on a broad range of skills and knowledge, rather than a narrow range that schools can focus on.

In addition, the test will be administered in October, rather than February, so that teachers cannot spend half the year on test preparation.

The changes are aimed at ensuring that the tests measure the "breadth of what education should be," according to Keith Cruse, director of student assessment for the Texas Education Agency.

"It's more helpful to the kids," he said, "and more in concert with our philosophy."

"Teachers must teach all things listed under an area" in the required curriculum, he added, "in order for their students to do well on the tests."

Testing an estimated 1.4 million students annually in grades 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 in reading, mathematics, and writing, the teams test is one of the most extensive statewide assessment proin the country.

The test was developed by the tea and is administered by three firms at an annual cost of $4.5 million--about $1 per test per pupil.

It has drawn criticism from local educators, however, who charge that it has tended to define what is taught in Texas classrooms, rather than to measure what students learn.

Mr. Cruse acknowledged that the test has driven instruction, but said that is a reflection of the fact that the test was used for purposes for which it was not originally intended.

"In the early years, when we were trying to help students develop basic skills, the test worked very well," Mr. Cruse said.

"But then the state started evaluating schools on how well they were doing on the test," he said. "There was a lot of pressure to do well."

Specifically, he noted, schools placed too much emphasis on the dozen or so "essential elements" of the state's core curriculum that were included on the teams exam.

Under the revised system, he said, the test will include questions based on all 80 essential elements, although not all will be included each year.

"If you took last year's test as a signal of what's going to be on this year's," he said, "your kids will do poorly."

In addition, the earlier test date is intended to reduce the amount of time teachers spend reviewing material from the previous year, according to Mr. Cruse.

For example, he said, since 3rd graders will be tested on 2nd-grade objectives, "teachers can begin [the current year's work] before they have spent half a year of 3rd grade catching up on 2nd grade."

But since the October date reduces the value of testing 1st graders, Mr. Cruse said, the legislature is considering a proposal to abolish the 1st-grade teams.

State officials are hoping, however, that the earlier date will enhance the test's usefulness as a diagnostic tool in higher grades.

Under the previous system, teachers received results late in the school year, Mr. Cruse noted. But now officials will provide schools with the results of the reading and math tests in time for them to redirect resources where they are needed.

Over the next few years, Mr. Cruse predicted, other states will consider similar changes in their testing programs.

"You can't change the context of accountability" that has led to the proliferation of testing, he argued. "But I think you'll see more large-scale assessments adjust to changing times."--rr

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