Monday, November 21, 2005

3rd-graders who fail state test often promoted anyway

What this piece does not acknowledge is that the current system of testing violates professional ethics. Most fundamental is the ethical argument advanced by national reputable associations like the American Educational Research Association, the National Research Council, the American Psychological Association, and the National Academy of Sciences - alongside the makers of the tests themselves - that no single test be used as the basis for any high-stakes decision like retention, promotion or graduation. I do not accept the premise implicit in this piece below that the testing system either serves the interests of the children or that it is used in an appropriate manner. It is unfortunate that our official leadership is apparently unaware of the decades of research that demonstrates that retaining students in grade is a backward, not to mention morally reprehensible approach to student achievement. -Angela

3rd-graders who fail state test often promoted anyway
Educators say review process allows a look at each failing student's situation before making decision to promote them.

By Jason Embry
Monday, November 21, 2005
For three years, Texas has used a statewide test to help determine who is ready to move from third grade to fourth and who needs to stay behind for another year. But the handful of students who fail the test often move on to fourth grade anyway.

During the first two years that the state required third-graders to pass the reading section of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, about 3 percent of them, or 8,600 students per year, neverdid. Slightly more than half of that group, including many students who failed the test three times, advanced to fourth grade at the start of the next school year, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.

The fact that third-graders are jumping to the next grade without meeting the testing requirements raises questions about the effectiveness of a policy that was supposed to end so-called social promotion and ensure that students would not advance through school without the proper skills.

"I don't know whether that number is too high," Sandy Kress, an adviser to then-Gov. George W. Bush who helped push for the testing requirement in 1999, said of the total number of promoted students. "It's certainly high enough to wonder if youngsters who might not be able to do the work in the next grade are going on to the next grade. So I worry without knowing I have the right to be worried."

According to state and local records:

•In 2004, at least a third of those who failed and were promoted moved on after a committee of one of the child's parents, one teacher and one principal reviewed their academic records and decided that they should advance despite having failed three times. That ratio was roughly the same in 2003.

•Several districts in Travis County, as well as the Round Rock district, chose more often than not in 2004 to promote students who repeatedly failed the test, according to data provided by the districts.

•About 38 percent of failing students who moved on to fourth grade in 2003 did so by taking a different test, which state law allows because their teachers identified a disability. Numbers are not available for 2004.

Still other students took other tests deemed more appropriate for them after two TAKS failures, and for some, records of why they were promoted are not clear because they changed schools, state officials said.

Yet state data indicate that fewer than one-third of failing students whom a committee moved on to the next grade in 2003 went on to pass the fourth-grade state reading test.

The education agency report released at the end of October also shows that the promotion policy that began in 2003 has done little to affect the overall rate of students who have to repeat third grade. In 2004, 2.6 percent of third-graders were kept there an extra year for any reason, from low grades to poor attendance.

The rate has hovered between 2 percent and 3 percent since 1998.

Educators say the overall retention rate has remained low because, in the years leading up to the new test, the state spent hundreds of millions of dollars on small-group instruction, extra teacher training and other programs designed to ensure that students could read at a third-grade level. As a result, finalpassing rates on the English version of the third-grade reading test have been above 95 percent for several years.

"We've made a profound difference on the issue of kids being able to read," said Linda Bridges, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers.

Promoted; then what?

Locally, the Austin, Round Rock, Pflugerville and Del Valle school districts all promoted more third-graders who failed the TAKS three times than they kept back in 2004. Educators say those decisions reflect careful scrutiny of each student's classroom work, attendance and progress on the state test.

ThePflugerville district held back eight out of 11 TAKS failures in 2003 but promoted eight out of 11 in 2004.

"You're looking at a lot of student performance data to make that decision, and you know that student," said Romelle Parker, an assistant superintendent in the Round Rock district. "If you promote them and it's the wrong thing to do, they're going to fail next spring. And we're going to be held accountable for that. So it wouldn't behoove us to promote someone if they're just going to fail the next time."

But, statewide, many of them do fail the next time.

Among third-graders who were promoted by a committee after the first year of TAKS testing, 2003, just 29 percent passed the reading test in fourth grade, state figures show. Similar data for the 2004 test have not been released by the state.

The TAKS is given in almost every grade to gauge how well schools are teaching the curriculum that the state requires. The reading section in third grade measures vocabulary, comprehension and other areas of instruction.

Bush called for the state to tie promotions to test scores in the late 1990s to reduce "social promotion," or students moving to the next grade without the requisite skills. The jump from third grade to fourth, it was thought, brings a major change in the difficulty of classwork and the reading skills children need.

The promotion requirement has since been added to the fifth-grade math and reading tests, and it will extend to the eighth-grade tests in those subjects in 2008.

Little change in rate

Kress said proponents of the policy created the appeals committees late in the 1999 legislative session to win support from some Democrats. He could not recall talk at the time of how many students who go before the committees should be promoted.

"We foresaw the day when it might be used widely or maybe too easily," he said. "But legislatively, it was the price we had to pay to get the bill. And it wasn't as if there would be no justification for it."

Third-graders must answer about two-thirds of the questions correctly to pass the reading test. Those who fail the test on the first try must have extra small-group instruction at school. If they fail a second time, the school must form the grade-placement committee made up of a parent, a teacher and a principal.

After the third test failure, the student is kept in third grade unless the parent asks the committee to consider promotion. If all three members of the committee approve, the student can move on. Students who are promoted without meeting the testing requirements must continue to receive extra help in fourth grade.

"The whole reason for having a grade-placement committee is, you want to avoid making a significant and comprehensive decision based on only one data point," said Maria Whitsett, executive director of accountability in the Austin district.

The fact that there has been little change in the retention rate since the testing policy was set raises the question of whether social promotion was a major problem in the first place.

It was, said the teacher federation's Bridges. In 1995, fewer than 80 percent of third-graders passed the state reading test, which was an easier exam than the one used today. But only 1.3 percent of third-graders were held back that year.

Bridges credited the money the state spent on extra programs in kindergarten through third grade between 1999 and 2003 and pointed out that lawmakers cut funding for some of those programs when confronted with a state budget shortfall two years ago. Additional funding will be crucial now that testing plays into promotion decisions in fifth grade and soon will in eighth, Bridges said.

"We've made significant gains over time based on the investment that was made," Bridges said. "Will we stay the course and continue the investment to continue to make gains? That's an issue I'm a little nervous about."; 445-3654

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