Monday, December 04, 2006

Legislators, get out your No. 2 pencils and cross out the TAKS exit test

EDITORIAL BOARD / Austin Am-Statesman
Friday, December 01, 2006
Texas public schools might finally get a testing system that puts the emphasis where it should be — on student performance.

High-stakes testing, using the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, causes schools to spend too much time teaching the test. In public schools, a student can be held back or denied a diploma based on that test. Even those students who earn high grades are denied graduation if they don't pass the exit TAKS.

It's a testing system that was designed to bring accountability to Texas public schools at a time when football trumped academics. It was and is a worthy goal, but the testing system falls short. Parents and teachers clamor for a correction that would emphasize learning without compromising accountability. The goal has been elusive in a system that establishes the TAKS as the centerpiece of accountability and standards.

The TAKS determines state ratings for schools and districts. A low rating amounts to a scarlet letter that makes it difficult to recruit good teachers to the schools that need them most.

That is why we welcome state Sen. Florence Shapiro's forward-thinking proposal to eliminate the TAKS.

Shapiro's proposal to replace the TAKS with end-of-course exams in middle and high school has the potential of lowering the stakes — and politics — while maintaining accountability. No longer would performance by a student, school or district be tied to a single exam. That would be a significant improvement.

The exams Shapiro proposes would be given at the end of a semester, as opposed to the TAKS, which is given much later in the school year. The end-of-course exams would align with the curriculum, but could cover far more than the TAKS, allowing teachers to fully explore topics. Testing, especially for juniors and seniors, would be far less stressful because they would not take the exit TAKS, a cumulative exam that measures skills they learned in the ninth- through 11th grades. Instead, those students would take exams on courses they studied at the time.

As it is now, teachers spend too much time drilling students on the dos and don'ts of multiple-choice tests: Do fill in the bubble with a No. 2 pencil. Don't mark in the booklet; do try to guess the answer by eliminating other choices. Don't leave it blank. And then there are all those practice exams.

End-of-course exams would properly focus more on a student's knowledge of a topic, not whether he used the right pencil.

Shapiro, the Plano Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said she hasn't worked out all the specifics of the proposal she plans to offer in a bill when the Legislature convenes in January. Her plan includes a new requirement that all Texas high school students take the SAT or ACT college entrance exam so that their performance can be compared with their peers' in other states. That is a higher standard because those exams are more rigorous than the TAKS.

We urge Shapiro not to create another exit exam that is a barrier to high school graduation for students who complete their coursework and pass their classes, but fail to pass the test.

We also hope Shapiro will establish accountability measures that require schools to report student performance by race, ethnicity and economic status, as the system does now. That has pressed schools to identify and help underperformers and to focus on closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.

Texas has labored under a high-stakes system for about two decades. There has been improvement in student performance as schools reduced class sizes, toughened standards and required testing of most grades. But the TAKS has proved to be a crude tool that emphasizes test-taking skills over academics. Shapiro thinks the state can do better. We agree.

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