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Published in Print: April 29, 1998, as In Texas, the Arrival of SpringMeans the Focus Is on Testing

In Texas, the Arrival of Spring Means the Focus Is on Testing

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Fifth in an occasional series

Talk about ubiquitous: Even 3rd graders in this south Texas town know what "TAAS" stands for.

The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, given every spring to students in grades 3-10, has come to dominate the lives of students and educators throughout the state.

At a track meet, student athletes swap information about their times, their training techniques--and their scores on the state tests. "I'm proud of how my school has done, and I wonder how others do," said Yvonne Perez, 15, a sophomore and distance runner at the 1,700-student Los Fresnos High School.

The exams are the heart of one of the nation's most comprehensive systems designed to hold teachers, students, and schools accountable for their performance. And with achievement rising statewide, as in Ms. Perez's small community near the Mexican border, policymakers elsewhere are taking note.

"A grade on the TAAS means the same anywhere you are, and you don't have that in a lot of states," said Heidi Glidden, a researcher with the American Federation of Teachers in Washington. "There's also an embarrassment factor. People don't want to be the worst school in the neighborhood."

Getting Tough

The roots of the current Texas system began with get-tough, centralized reforms of the 1980s that included new state assessments and a new curriculum. Lawmakers began in the 1990s to give more authority to individual schools, but at the same time strengthened accountability by creating the more rigorous TAAS in 1993.

Nowadays, springtime signals the eagerly anticipated publication of test results in newspapers and on television.

The scores are eventually combined with dropout and attendance data to rate most of the state's 6,875 schools and 1,060 districts. Rewards and sanctions are meted out based on ratings of "exemplary," "recognized," "acceptable," or "low performing."

The information is tracked on a school data system that state officials say is the largest of its kind in the country, and it is available to the public on the World Wide Web.

Supporters boast that the system is the reason Texas students and schools have shown substantial gains and have led the country in improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the closest thing to a common national test in the United States.

"When you look at classrooms today, they're spending a lot of time focused on academic learning," said Joseph F. Johnson, who directs the Collaborative for School Improvement at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. "That's the critical issue."

But detractors find many faults in the accountability effort. The state's standards, which were rewritten last year, are not academically rigorous enough, some say. Others argue that provisions for state takeovers of low-performing schools and for mandatory graduation tests--the "exit exam" that students first take in the 10th grade and must pass before they graduate--are too punitive.

The biggest concern, however, seems to be that the TAAS exams have become too important.

"When you have high stakes and then add an exit exam, that jacks up the system so that the test becomes the curriculum," said Monty Neill, the acting executive director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a critic of standardized tests. "One should not be using scores on tests to make serious educational decisions."

Impressive Results

Texas officials have plenty of ammunition to defend the system. The proportion of students passing the TAAS has improved from 55 percent in 1994, the first year it was administered, to 74 percent last year.

Only 32 percent of African-American students passed the tests in 1994. That rate jumped to 56 percent in 1997. The passing rate for Hispanics rose from 41 percent to 62 percent in that time.

And while 34 districts and 267 schools were characterized as "low performing" in 1995, only four districts and 67 schools earned that designation last year.

"It's a real tribute to educators," said Criss Cloudt, the associate commissioner of policy planning and research for the Texas Education Agency.

Some critics warn that Texas may be overstating the importance of the gains students have shown. There will inevitably be improvements after the introduction of new tests, they say, as students and educators get used to them.

However, Lone Star students also made dramatic gains among the 39 states that participated in the 4th grade math portion of the 1996 NAEP. The state's black and white students had the highest average scores of any state, while its Hispanic students ranked sixth. Texas' 11-point improvement overall was the largest of any state's.

Mr. Neill of FairTest concedes that the improvements are impressive. But he says that an enriched curriculum, not test preparation, is behind the shifts, and that it would be a mistake for other states simply to adopt a similar test. "The danger becomes this simplistic idea that Texas has high-stakes tests, they're doing better, so let's do it," he said.

Ms. Cloudt is quick to agree, at least in part, that other factors have contributed to the improvements of Texas students.

She points out that Texas has set K-4 classroom sizes at a maximum of 22 students since 1985. Districts have also been required to offer prekindergarten to students with limited English skills since 1985.

But she added that the mandatory 10th grade exit exam has also "been a motivator for parents and students."

Forcing Changes

In Los Fresnos, educators have found that success comes with a mix of fixes.

The 6,200-student system sits in the heart of the agriculture-rich Lower Rio Grande Valley.

About 90 percent of the students here are Hispanic, half of whom enter school speaking little or no English. And 88 percent of the elementary school students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

Statistically, the district has all the traits of a low-performing district. At one time, it was.

"When I came here 20 years ago, you'd ask children to write, and they couldn't do it," said Antoinette Connaughton, the principal of Villareal Elementary School. "No one could write."

By last fall, for the first time, the district's five elementary schools were ranked by the state as "exemplary." The high school and its two middle schools have moved from "low performing" to "recognized."

As for writing, 8th graders went from 69 percent at the "mastery" level on the 1993-94 TAAS writing exam to 83 percent in 1996-97.

What's behind the turnaround? Local educators say that the state's mix of clear goals, accountability, and flexibility forced them to find ways to excel, or face humiliation.

For example, several years ago, a handful of the district's teachers experimented with dividing their lesson plans into weekly learning objectives. Even though their students made remarkable gains, there was resistance to expanding the "time lines."

But when schools started getting rated publicly, a burst of interest in academic strategies ensued that produced results. Today, all reading, writing, and math instruction here follows time lines. The weekly learning objectives, such as drawing conclusions from written passages, are linked to the state standards.

"I've always believed we should teach the masses, not just the cream, and that's what has happened," said Bertha Zamora, the principal of Los Fresnos High. "TAAS is the best thing that ever happened to Hispanics."

'I Love Math'

Teachers here receive two 45-minute planning periods daily, one of them with teachers in their same discipline and grade.

Los Fresnos students also take two benchmark tests, or TAAS practice exams, each year. Based on the results, remediation is offered to low-performing students, often during physical education classes.

"The help is immediate," said Lorene Villarreal, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "Attendance is better than if it were in the summer. That means more for the tax dollar." Teachers with large numbers of lagging students may get paired with stronger teachers.

And schools are experimenting with test-taking environments. Students pick rooms that are bright or dark, or that allow music or food. Some rooms are for students who take a full day on the untimed exam.

Most important, perhaps, is a culture of high expectations.

In Villareal Elementary classrooms, black posters emblazoned with gold letters declare the goal of a 100 percent pass rate. Calendars counting down the days to the exam are as common as clocks.

If the enthusiasm seems contrived at first, it becomes contagious. "Do you feel smart? Do you feel you can solve my story problem?" Alma Atkinson asks her 4th grade math students. Firm but loving, she rewards correct answers on math problems with a peck on the cheek. "That's what makes you the TAAS masters. You are the masters!"

It all seems like a lot of pressure. But not for Crystal Rios. "I love math. It's my favorite subject," the enthusiastic 10-year-old declared. "I know my math strategies. The TAAS will be easy. On my benchmark, I got 88."

Too Much Heat?

But some express concern that time and energy are spent on TAAS preparation at the expense of advanced, broader curricular goals.

"Some juniors say that after spending time on the TAAS as sophomores, they're behind and there's a lot of pressure to catch up," said Justin Lang, a sophomore at Los Fresnos High. He said his English class for gifted students spent too much time on TAAS readiness.

Similar concerns are voiced at the state level.

John Cole, the executive director of the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said schools still waste time on morale-boosting activities such as pep rallies and T-shirts with catchy slogans. And, he added, school officials miss the mark when they resort to daylong TAAS drilling and exempt large numbers of special education students from the test.

"There's a tangible improvement in student achievement that wouldn't be there without the accountability system," Mr. Cole said. "But you have to expect some people will try things to find the easy way out."

John Stevens, the executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, which has been an influential player in pushing for high-stakes accountability, says that what the state needs is even more testing, notably in high school, after the 10th grade. "We do not have as good a picture of high schools as we do of elementary and middle school."

Vol. 17, Issue 33, Pages 1,20-21

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