Texas is raising the stakes, and the expectations, with its new testing program—though students will be given two years before they are held to the ultimate achievement goals.
The state board of education voted 12-3 Nov. 15 to set a passing score on its new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills for the current school year that will be lower than the one students will be required to meet two years from now.
The passing scores are slated to rise for 2003-04 and then again the next year. By then, they will reach the point recommended by a panel of experts that reviewed the scores on a recent field test of the new test program, known as TAKS.
State school board members said their decision was difficult because the new testing program will play a vital role in deciding grade promotion and high school graduation for students.
Starting this school year, 3rd graders will have to pass the reading exam, which will be given in the spring, before being promoted to 4th grade. Once that class reaches the 5th and 8th grades, the students will need to pass reading and mathematics tests before moving to the next grade.
To earn a high school diploma, the current class of sophomores will be required to pass 11th grade tests in English, math, science, and social studies.
“It was a hard decision,” Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, the senior communications director for the Texas Education Agency, said of the state board’s action. “So much is at stake because for the first time ever, grade promotion will be tied to these scores at three levels.”
The phase-in will give teachers and students the chance to adjust to the more difficult standards, state officials said.
Based on the results of pilot tests given last spring, 23 percent of 3rd graders would have failed the reading test this spring. Under the temporary standard the board adopted, the failure rate would have been 15 percent.
“Everyone’s a little bit concerned that the field-test scores are a little low,” said Grace Shore, the chairwoman of the state board. “That’s one reason we thought the phase-in would be best.”
But Ms. Shore predicts the TAKS test scores will rise once students and teachers realize they have high stakes attached to them.
And even though this year’s passing scores will be lower than the ultimate goal, they will still be more challenging than the performance standards under the state’s current testing program, she said.
Opportunity to Learn?
Some board members wanted to establish a passing standard for 3rd grade reading, which state law requires, but wanted to wait to set the performance standards in other subjects and grades.
Although the state has established new curricula in all major subjects, Texas hasn’t prepared teachers to teach to them and still hasn’t adopted textbooks in all subjects, according to Mary Helen Berlanga, a board member from Corpus Christi who was one of three members who voted against the standards.
“We’ve worked on reading for a number of years, and we’ve spent millions of dollars on reading,” Ms. Berlanga said. “Have we given the students everything they need [in all subjects]? Actually, we haven’t.”
But others said the $500 million the state has spent on professional development and other programs to implement the curriculum over the four years should be enough.
“The building blocks were in place for teachers to teach the children to the higher standard,” said Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, a board member from Dallas who supported phasing in the new performance standards.
The state board has decided to revisit its decision when the first TAKS results are released next summer. If the scores are high enough, the board could vote to skip the second year of the phase-in, Ms. Miller said. “I’m optimistic that we’re going to see the kids score higher on what we call the ‘real’ test [next spring].”
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Texas to Phase In New Performance Standards