Commissioner Calls for Expanding Texas Assessments

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Texas students, already among the most tested in the country, would take more exams in more subjects under a new proposal by state Commissioner of Education Mike Moses.

But while his blueprint for expanding the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills has been well-received, teacher groups have blasted a companion plan to tie teacher bonuses to scores on the statewide tests.

If approved by the legislature next year, Mr. Moses' plan, among other things, would move the high school exit exam from 10th to 11th grade. It would also add 9th grade tests in mathematics and reading to the TAAS exams now given in grades 3-8 and 10.

"These proposed changes, which we have been preparing for months, are numerous and substantial," Mr. Moses said at a Dec. 4 news briefing. "But I believe they will help us meet the challenges we face today."

Teachers' groups, however, say what should be one of the state's biggest challenges--raising teacher salaries by $6,000 to reach the national average of $38,436--is not addressed by the bonus proposal.

"The real need is to jack up the overall compensation for all teachers so that we get the best teachers in the classrooms," said John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "We need to stop looking at quick-fix gimmicks."

Mr. Moses' proposal would represent the first major change in the state's testing system since 1994, the first year TAAS exams were given. It comes on the heels of a privately funded report that said the TAAS tests are too easy. ("Report Says Texas Tests Aren't Tough Enough," Nov. 18, 1998.)

While scores have steadily improved, many Texans say it's time to toughen the exams, which were given to almost 1.9 million students last school year. That number would rise to 2.5 million with the new 9th and 11th grade tests.

'Positive Move'

Moving the exit exam up a grade, the state schools chief says, would measure more of what students are supposed to learn in high school. The new exam would also add science and social studies to the current exit exam topics of reading, writing, and math.

Mr. Moses' proposal comes even as the 10th grade exit exam faces a court challenge filed in 1997 by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The lawsuit against the state department of education charges that the exam discriminates against minority students, who have failed it at higher rates than whites.

But Mr. Moses said the state "cannot allow a lawsuit to hinder or stymie our efforts to improve student performance and increase accountability in the state."

Other proposed changes include:

  • Adding science and math to the 10th grade test, adding science to 5th and 7th grade tests, and adding social studies to the 4th grade test;
  • Creating a way to gauge the reading abilities of Spanish-speaking students in grades K-2;
  • Expanding the current Spanish version of TAAS in grades 3-6 to cover the same areas tested on the English version.

For the first time, districts that want to win the state's highest ratings would be required to have a 50 percent passing rate on state end-of-level exams in Algebra I, biology, U.S. history, and English II.

The idea was applauded by critics of the current accountability system who argue that TAAS exams, which are separate from end-of-level tests, have become too easy.

"Putting end-of-level exams in the accountability system is the only way you should be able to get exemplary or recognized. It's a very positive move," said George H. Scott, the president of the Tax Research Association of Houston and Harris County, a business-funded, watchdog group in Houston that released a study last month faulting the TAAS tests for not being difficult enough.

Bonuses Snubbed

In contrast to the positive responses to the test plan, which included praise by newly re-elected Republican Gov. George W. Bush, the teacher-bonus proposal drew sharp rebukes.

Mr. Moses wants to give yearly individual cash awards to the teachers at the schools that show the most significant improvements in test scores, attendance, and dropout rates. He estimated that would result in awards for 25 percent of the state's teachers.

"What does that do for schools already at the 90 percent level and which work all year to stay there?" asked Sue Barker, the president of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. "We need across-the-board raises."

Mr. Cole, the president of the state's AFT affiliate, said pay raises, not bonuses, would benefit students most by attracting qualified teachers. "Teachers are being told to teach a subject they did not want to teach and are not qualified to teach, and now we say we're going to tie your salary to that," he added. "They get resentful."

And 1999 may be the year to lobby for a big raise because the legislature will begin its session with a $6 billion budget surplus.

Mr. Cole's organization is pushing for a $6,000 annual salary increase for all the state's roughly 264,000 teachers, at a cost of about $1.6 billion a year.

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Pages 17, 21

Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as Commissioner Calls for Expanding Texas Assessments
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