Feb. 21, 2005
FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM
Failing third-graders promoted
Many who failed TAKS were promoted
By Cynthia L. Garza
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
More than half the third-graders in Texas who failed the TAKS reading test three times in 2003 were not held back as intended by state law but instead were promoted to the fourth grade.
The 5,077 students who failed the TAKS reading test three times in 2003 and were promoted were allowed to move up because a committee of the child's parents, teacher and principal agreed that the child was ready for fourth grade or because the child took an alternative test most often given to special-education students, according to the Texas Education Agency.
"It's not a loophole. It's not an out. It's an opportunity to provide those students who are just on the edge of passing to be promoted," TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said.
The majority of third-graders in Texas, nearly 97 percent, passed the 2004 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading exam.
Students statewide begin taking TAKS tests this week.
So far, only third-graders have had to pass a portion of the TAKS to be promoted. But this year, fifth-graders must pass the reading and math tests to advance to sixth grade. In 2007-08, eighth-graders will also have to pass reading and math to move on to high school.
All three checkpoints -- third, fifth and eighth grade -- allow for the grade-placement committees to promote students who fail the test.
But high school juniors -- with no exceptions -- must pass the TAKS exit exam to receive their diplomas.
Statewide figures for 2004 were not available, but in the Fort Worth school district, about 35 percent of the 225 third-graders who failed the TAKS reading test three times were promoted. In 2003, 55 percent of the 186 students who failed moved on, according to district data.
The Arlington school district promoted 16 percent of its 153 third-graders who failed in 2004, compared with 38 percent of the 97 students who failed in 2003.
Other area districts -- including Grapevine-Colleyville, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Mansfield -- promoted from one-fourth to more than half the third-graders who failed.
Case by case
Educators don't necessarily see promoting students who fail the test as circumventing the law. Many believe that the decision to pass or fail a student should be made by those who work with the child.
Fort Worth district Deputy Superintendent Pat Linares said that moving the failing third-graders up a grade is not social promotion. In social promotions, students with failing marks are sent to the next grade so they can remain with children their own age.
"The fact of the matter is, I think these are very well-defined promotions because it does require a collaborative effort," among parents, teachers and principals who "make that decision based on data and information brought to the table," Linares said.
The committee takes into account the student's scores on other benchmark exams and progress in class work, Linares said. By looking at all factors, the committee can pinpoint a child's weaknesses and needs.
"I think anytime you are able to focus in on what is necessary for a child to succeed, that's a good thing," Linares said.
Many educators believe that failing children solely because they failed one high-stakes exam is too punitive.
"Obviously, these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis," said Donna New Haschke, president of the 65,000-member Texas State Teachers Association. "No child learns the same as another child. There are all kinds of variables that sometimes a school can't control."
Because of that, the committee considers any surrounding circumstances, Culbertson said. Sometimes the reasons for poor scores extend beyond the classroom, ranging from the child being a recent immigrant to the death of a parent or a sibling.
Sometimes, it may be just test anxiety.
Repercussions for failing -- or even the thought of failing the exam and being retained -- can affect those who educate students as well.
Recently, Westpark Elementary School Principal Lynn Allen was placed on administrative leave while school officials investigated a teacher's claim that Allen asked the teacher to have a parent withdraw a student during the TAKS.
School administrators were reportedly concerned that the fifth-grader -- who has severe test anxiety -- would fail the reading exam.
Allen returned to work Friday but is still being investigated by the state.
A third option
Many educators say standardized testing isn't just about passing and failing students, but pursuing a third option.
Third-graders who fail -- whether they are retained or promoted -- receive the extra attention school officials say is necessary to get them up to par.
The students will get extra tutoring before, during and after school and on weekends. Or perhaps the child will be taught in a smaller group setting.
In economic terms, paying for extra tutoring and advancing the student make more sense than paying for the child's education in the same grade twice, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. The center is a national, independent advocate for public schools and for making them more effective.
Failing can also bruise a child's self-image.
The child may be "known as the dummy of the class, and this has an effect on how kids view them," Jennings said. That damaged self-image can become internalized and lead to further failure.
Research clearly shows that students who are retained, especially minority students, are more likely to drop out of school.
But students who are socially promoted graduate without the knowledge and skills a high school student should have, and, in turn, are ill-prepared for college and the work force.
The policy that would seem to make the most sense is to move the students on but give them the extra help they need, Jennings said.
As the fifth-grade promotion requirement takes effect this year, educators are not sure whether what has happened in the third grade will be replicated with the older students.
IN THE KNOW
A closer look
• Third-graders must pass the TAKS reading test to be promoted to fourth grade.
• Fifth-graders must pass the TAKS reading and math exams this year to be promoted to the sixth grade.
• In 2007-08, eighth-graders will have to pass the TAKS reading and math exams to move on to high school.
• Juniors must pass the TAKS exit exam -- which tests English/language arts, math, science and social studies -- to graduate.
Cynthia L. Garza, (817) 390-7675 firstname.lastname@example.org