Education

Lone Star Test Becomes a Texas-Sized Production

By Blake Rodman — June 20, 2019 8 min read

Jerry Wilson has been the principal of a Littlefield, Tex., junior high school since 1978. Before that, he taught mathematics in various Texas schools for 16 years. But success is no antidote, he says, for the apprehension he feels over the new mandatory literacy test that all teachers and administrators in the state must take next month.

“What if I make a mistake and don’t make it?” he asks. “What else can I do at my age? I’ve dedicated my life to kids and teaching.”

Like thousands of his colleagues, Mr. Wilson is taking nothing for granted. He has attended one of the proliferating number of refresher courses on grammar, punctuation, and test-taking skills that have been offered by teachers’ organizations in the state. So widespread is the fear of job loss among Texas educators that such courses have attracted an estimated 200,000 registrants, many of whom paid up to $75 in fees to attend.

Demand for pre-test aid has been so intense, in fact, that the University of Texas, which helped develop and administer one of the study courses, is expected to net an “unexpected windfall” of $1 million for its efforts.

And teachers’ unions, never a potent force in Texas education, say frustrations and fears surrounding the test have boosted their memberships.

Yet all of the anxiety has been generated by what proponents of the test claim is an examination that anyone who can read and write will be able to pass. For those who do not pass, however, the takes are high. Failure to receive a passing grade by June 30 will result in loss of certification, and, hence, the loss of a job. Test-takers will have two chance to pass.

The test is scheduled to be offered for the first time March 10, but a state judge was expected to rule last Friday on a suit challenging its legality.

Texas is one of three states that have mandated such tests for practicing teachers. Arkansas and Georgia are the other two.

The apprehensiveness expressed by Mr. Wilson and others is not groundless. When the test—known as the Texas Examination of Current Administrators and Teachers, TECAT for short—was field-tested last fall, 12 percent of the 5,000 educators who took it received grades below the passing mark set by the state. And on the basis of that experience, state officials are predicting that as many as 1 out of 4 blacks and 1 out of 10 Hispanics will fail.

W. Jame. Popham, director of I.O.X. Assessment Associates, the group that developed the TECAT, says the test is designed “to identify individuals who can’t read or write satisfactorily.”

“All but a very small portion of the teachers can read and write well,” Mr. Popham said in an interview last week. “People who can read will do well on the exam.”

The three-part test includes 55 multiple-choice questions on reading (with a passing score of 75 percent); 30 multiple-choice questions on writing; and a required essay judged on a 3-point scale. If the candidate earns a top score of 1 on the essay, the multiple-choice writing section is waived; with a score of 3, the candidate automatically fails; with a score of 2, the candidate must also score 75 percent on the multiple-choice writing questions.

For its part in the preparation process, the state has distributed free of charge a 50-page study guide to the nearly 211,000 who are required to take the test.

In addition, at least four education groups have rushed to develop remediation programs designed to help educators pass the make-or-break TECAT.

As a result, hundreds of workshops like the one Mr. Wilson attended in his town’s high school have been offered across the state, mostly on weekends, since last September.

Although the exact number of teachers who have taken the prep courses is not Known, officials from the four groups place total workshop attendance at about 200,000 educators. Since some people may have taken more than one workshop, they note, the actual attendance rates may be smaller.

Because of this “intense remediation effort” by teacher groups, State Commissioner of Education William Kirby has predicted that the failure rate will he much lower than the 12 percent who failed the field test.

He now estimates that 5 percent, or roughly 10,000, teachers will not pass the test by June 30.

Los of Manpower

This still would represent a dramatic loss in teaching manpower in the state at a time when many districts are finding it difficult to locate certified teachers.

“We are well aware that we have a shortage of teachers in Texas,” Mr. Kirby has said. “But we have no vacancies in our classrooms for teachers who cannot read and write.”

Under the law, however, districts facing an “emergency” situation may ask the state commissioner to grant a one-year waiver for individuals failing to pass the test by June 30, according to Terri Anderson of the Texas Education Agency.

We don’t think the waiver clause will be used to a great extent,” Ms. Anderson said. “Districts [requesting waivers] would be saying, ‘We know these people can’t demonstrate basic skills, but we want them in the classroom anyway.’”

The state board has told the commissioner that it wants him to be “very judicious” in granting the waivers, Ms. Anderson said.

She added that the state is hoping to encourage some of the 300,000 certified teachers in the state who are not currently teaching to re-enter the profession. But in order to teach, these individuals, too, would have to pass the TECAT.

Mandate and Challenge

The test was mandated in 1984, when, as part of its omnibus education-reform package, the Texas legislature directed the state board to institute a competency test for all professionally certified public-school personnel, including teachers, administrators, counselors, librarians, and those in related professional support positions. The lawmakers appropriated $4.7 million to cover the costs of developing the test and administering it for the first two times.

Last summer, however, the Texas State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, filed suit in state district court to block the test, claiming it violates a contract between the state and individual teachers.

That contract stipulates that certificates are valid for life unless cancelled by lawful authority, say the union’s lawyers. The Texas education code specifies the grounds upon which an educator’s certificate may be suspended or cancelled, they argue, and failure to satisfy a testing requirement is not among them.

Judge Harley Clark of Travis County District Court was expected to rule in the case last Friday. The union has requested an injunction to prevent the test from being given March 10.

But state officials said last week they were confident that the legality of the test would be upheld in court. “We are confident that we took every precaution to make sure the test could withstand legal review,” Ms. Anderson said.

Prices for Workshops Vary

Although one teachers’ group and a number of districts in the state have offered their teachers free test-review workshops. many educators have had to pay the costs themselves. Prices for the workshops have ranged from $5 to $75, depending on the number of people attending the session and the group providing the training.

The Texas Classroom Teachers Association, which developed and presented its test-review workshop and study guide in conjunction with the University of Texas’s division of continuing education. charged fees that ranged between $20 and $30, depending on group size.

Lloyd A. Tate, director of professional excellence for the 25,000-member group, said last week that more than 100,000 teachers—almost half of the 211,000 who will take the test next month—have attended one of the group’s six-hour courses since last September.

In Dallas, the district paid $160,000 to provide T.C.T.A. workshops for its 8,000 certified personnel, said Mr. Tate, who added that the “vast majority” of educators statewide have paid for the courses themselves.

“There is so much at stake,” he said, “that most people have not worried much about spending $20 to $30 out of the their own pocket to get this kind of protection or assistance.”

University Nets $1 Million

While the T.C.T.A. will not make any money from the course, the University of Texas, which invested more than $500,000 in developing the course and related materials, will net more than $1 million in profits, according to Mr. Tate.

The project was not conceived or envisioned as a money-making venture, he said, but has produced “an unexpected windfall” for the university.

The 96,000-member T.S.T.A., whose workshops and study materials were designed with the assistance of the N.E.A. and Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Education, offered its workshop free of charge, but only to its 96,000 members. The venture cost the T.S.T.A. and N.E.A. about $250,000, according to Annette S. Cootes, a spokesman for the state group.

Roughly 60,000 of the group’s members attended some 700 workshops at 450 sites around the state on Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, Ms, Cootes said.

After some of those sessions, members were asked to contribute to the group’s political-action committee, to defeat politicians responsible for the test, she added. The appeal netted about $35,000 for the PAC.

Union Ranks Swell

The union’s ranks have grown this year by roughly 6,000 members, and Ms. Cootes attributes the increase to teachers’ frustration about the test and general job dissatisfaction.

The T.C.T.A.'S membership also grew—from about 23,000 members last year to nearly 25,000 this year—despite a 50 percent dues increase, said Mr. Tate. The workshops, he said, “have been a strong selling point.”

Two other teacher groups—the 17,000-member Texas Federation of Teachers. an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, and the 44,000-member Association of Texas Professional Educators, a group of teachers and administrators—have also offered workshops around the state.

About 5,000 teachers and administrators have attended T.F.T. workshops, paying prices that have ranged from $5 for members to $75 for nonmembers, according to June L. Karp, a spokesman. She said the group spent about $60,000 developing its workshop and materials and hopes to recoup that amount from workshop fees and the sale of a 220- page study guide costing $10.

About 35,000 teachers have taken workshops offered by the A.T.P.E., with as many as 1,000 attending a single session, according to Donna Blevins, the group’s associate director for research and development. The association spent about $200,000 developing its review session and materials, and will try to recoup those expenses from the $5 “materials fee” it is charging, she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1986 edition of Education Week

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