April 25, 2006, 11:55PM
Evacuee TAKS scores prompt concern
Many stand to repeat 5th grade if they don't pass math and reading tests by summer
By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Fifth-graders who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina are lagging even further behind in math than on reading, leaving some educators worried that hundreds of Texas' newest pupils may have to repeat the grade.
Only 45 percent of the 2,396 fifth-grade Katrina evacuees who took the math Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills this month passed, compared with 82 percent of the Texas students, according to statewide results released Tuesday by the Texas Education Agency.
Last month, 47 percent of the Louisiana students enrolled in Texas passed the reading test, compared with an overall passing rate of 80 percent.
"Unfortunately, I don't think it'll be in the best interest of these students for a grade-level committee to pass them along," said Alief school board President Sarah Winkler. "You can't make up two to three years in a semester. I don't care if you're a magician, it can't happen ... But we're going to try."
The gap was slightly wider in some Houston-area districts, including Spring Branch. Only 42 percent of the Katrina pupils in that district passed the math portion, compared with 90 percent of other students.
Fifth-graders are required to pass both the math and reading portions by the summer to be promoted.
"There are some who really have to show some improvement between now and late June, or they run the risk of being held back," TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. "The reality is, some of these children will spend an extra year in a public school — here or someplace."
If a pupil hasn't passed the reading or math portions on the second try, a grade-placement committee of the child's teacher, principal and at least one parent is formed to develop an action plan.
If the child fails on the third and final attempt, a parent can appeal the child's automatic retention to the committee, which would then need to vote unanimously in order to promote the child.
In 2003-04, only 1 percent of fifth-graders in Texas were retained, Ratcliffe said.
Area school leaders said they will make every effort to make sure the Louisiana students pass by the third try in late June.
"We've said from the beginning, we don't think there's a better place the evacuees could have landed than in Houston, Texas," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said. "Obviously, it is taking a tremendous effort and will continue to do so until the summer ... The good thing is, we have tremendously educated people who make it their business to help kids."
The Houston Independent School District and several other area districts did not release their math scores Tuesday, saying they were still analyzing results and calculating the passing rates of Katrina students.
Since more than 40,000 displaced students arrived in Texas last year, schools have been rushing to create tutoring and remediation programs to help those who may be lagging behind.
They've been lobbying for grants, donations and federal funding to try to finance the extra programs.
"The data speaks for itself. But rather than throw up our hands in despair, we choose to give all students an opportunity to succeed — irrespective of their origin or length of time in district," Aldine school board President Rick Ogden said.
Educators will spend the next few weeks focusing on the content areas in which students struggled, including probability, statistics and algebraic reasoning for fifth-graders.
Because curricula vary so much, the TAKS may include topics that students from Louisiana have not yet covered, educators said. They added that those students may have mastered other topics that Texas students haven't yet covered.
"Pacing can be different from state to state. What we're working on now is filling in the gaps," Alief spokeswoman Susan Castro said.
In Alief, 46 percent of Katrina fifth-graders passed the math test, compared with 77 percent of the others.
The district is working with some area nonprofit groups to create a summer day camp to help Katrina students improve their math and reading skills. Alief officials also have purchased extra books and computer programs.
"We've got children and families that are willing to work, and we're certainly going to do everything we can," Castro said.
Statewide this year, Texas fifth-graders' scores improved by 2 percentage points on the math test. Fifth-graders have made dramatic gains in that portion of the TAKS since it debuted in 2003, even though the standard for passing also has been raised.
In 2003, when students had to answer 24 of the 44 questions correctly to pass, 79 percent of them did so. This year, with 34 correct answers required, 82 percent of Texas students passed.
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