Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Real Problem with TAKS Isn't the Cheating

Jan. 13, 2005

The real problem with TAKS isn't the cheating

Questions to consider on reasons for problem, timing


Recently, allegations of unethical educator conduct have brought TAKS testing results into question in various parts of the state. These allegations are troubling and certainly do not reflect the standards of the majority of Texas teachers. And by no means does the state's largest educators group, the Association of Texas Professional Educators, condone any action that reflects poorly upon the individual or the education profession.

However, we need to examine some interesting aspects of the recent developments. One: Why would an educator even think of cheating or allowing cheating on the exam? And two: Is there anything awry with the timing of these allegations (just prior to the start of the 79th legislative session)?

The first question is best answered by looking at what TAKS results mean for the student, the teacher, the school, the school district and the state. Students in the third, fifth and eighth grades have to pass the exam to move on to a higher grade while students in 11th grade have to pass the exam to graduate.

Teachers are judged in part on how their students perform on the exam. It can help them or cost them in promotions, recognition and job retention. And obviously teachers are not immune to the pressure. The real problem here is that the TAKS test is not a diagnostic exam. It's given at the end of the school year rather than at the beginning. So, even if a teacher is successful in improving a student's knowledge and skills, it's difficult to tell how much of a role the teacher actually played. In other words, a student can score poorly on the exam but still be miles ahead of where they were when the school year began.

For the schools and school districts, TAKS exam results are the cornerstone of their success or failure. The results are a factor in how the schools and districts are categorized. The Texas Education Agency annually rates schools and districts using the Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS) and awards the following ratings: exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable or academically unacceptable.

This rating is of such importance that it can make a difference in local real estate values and the overall community attitude toward a school.

Statewide, Texas is compared to the rest of the nation in terms of quality of education based in part on the results of this test.

Clearly, the TAKS test is an extremely high stakes exam, so much so that it appears some are willing to break the rules to benefit themselves, their students, their schools, school districts and the state. This by no means excuses the allegations of cheating, and, again, in no way can we condone such behavior. But this is a result of a high-pressure system that has taken the opportunity to teach away from teachers.

We are not suggesting the TAKS exam be completely scrapped, but we are saying that the test is being used in an inappropriate way. The answer here is not a one-shot performance test at the end of the year but instead a diagnostic test. If the TAKS is moved to an early-year exam, many will benefit. The stress will be eased from the student, and the teacher will be given wonderful insight into each pupil's needs based on the information gathered. In other words, the teacher will be allowed to actually teach.

This problem is not easily dismissed, but it is not endemic either. If we treat it as such, districts will likely hire independent monitors to oversee testing on every campus. This will only add to the anxiety of students on test day as well as the expense of testing. However, it's an action the Houston Independent School District is already taking for testing in February and April. The current proposed plan calls for hundreds of monitors to show up at both assigned and random classrooms.

And finally, let's look at the timing involved in this issue. We are set to begin an incredibly important chapter in our state's history with regard to public school finance. The 79th Legislature convened Tuesday. It's going to be a session in which, once again, the interests of students, teachers and schools are at the forefront. We have a funding method right now that is in limbo before the Texas Supreme Court. It will be easier for the Legislature to limit spending on education when there are questions about teacher integrity in the classroom.

We cannot state strongly enough that the allegations are not indicative of the behavior of the overwhelming majority of teachers in this state. Texas educators have an incredible desire to provide your children with an exemplary education. All they want is the opportunity to teach.

Iglehart is president of the Association of Texas Professional Educators in Austin.

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