Monday, August 27, 2007

Eighth-graders face the stress of TAKS

Class of 2012 on front lines of high-stakes tests, but effect of stress raises concerns

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
August 26, 2007

Kirby Middle School eighth-grader Eddie Maxwell practices the same ritual every night before a high-stakes test: He takes a warm bath and says lots of prayers.

It's a recipe he'll have to rely on again this year as eighth-graders statewide are required to pass the reading and math parts of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills before they can start high school.

The Class of 2012, now the poster children for standardized testing in Texas, was the first required to pass the test to be promoted as third-graders in 2003 and as fifth-graders in 2005.

Texas' 13-year-olds are on the front lines of high-stakes testing, sitting for more must-pass tests than any class before them. Though the full impact of the state's extensive testing won't be known for some time, experts worry that the extra stress may have ill effects on this class, including increased anxiety and higher dropout rates.

"They're certainly the guinea pigs for Texas' latest experiment in high-stakes testing," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

"I'm used to it," said Maxwell, a student in the North Forest district who runs track and hopes to be a doctor. "I just do my best and I pray before I take the test."

His mother, Lashanda Curtis, paints a different picture of her son's coping abilities. She worries that his nervousness before every exam is fostering his dislike of school. "It kind of makes him upset and he says at times he wishes he wasn't in school," Curtis said.

Schaeffer says it's more difficult for this group "because none of the teachers or students know what they're in for."

Yet, Curtis and others hope the extra attention will equate to a better education. They know the federal No Child Left Behind law, and the testing it requires, motivates students, teachers and administrators.

"It pushes the kids and it makes them strive harder," Curtis said. "There's a time and a place for work and study, but kids also need that time to play. At times, I feel like they're just pushing them a little bit too hard."

Illnesses at test time

Indeed, parents and school nurses report increased instances of headaches and stomachaches during testing season. Some children have trouble sleeping and eating. And there always are a few who get sick to their stomachs on testing day.

"This is an enormous amount of pressure and, for some children, at least, it's an unhealthy amount of pressure," said Ed Miller, co-director for programs for the Alliance for Childhood, a Maryland-based nonprofit. "It's pretty logical that kids who struggle with this kind of test are going to have a lot of anxiety, especially when the consequences are not being promoted, which is the most traumatic one for kids."

Texas Education Agency officials say they hope students and teachers aren't getting too stressed by the tests, which were required by state legislation to end social promotion. The law was adopted when these kids were kindergartners.

The state's mantra is that if educators teach to the curriculum, the results will follow, said Muffet Livaudais, director of special projects for TEA. She said there's no need to put extreme pressure on children.

To help students meet the higher standards, the state has invested millions of dollars training educators how to better teach reading.

"These kids had such a good foundation, and that's half your battle," Livaudais said.

But some experts say that, with the shortcomings of the public school system so well documented, educators should spend their time and energy on teaching, not testing.

"If a child is starving, you don't just keep weighing them over and over again," Miller said. "You give them food."

Finding the cause of stress

Poor test-takers or students from low-performing schools are especially stressed by these types of tests, particularly if they're struggling with other issues at home or school, health experts say. They say teachers must try to figure out the reasons behind the stress, whether they be academic shortcomings or personal issues.

"If they're just being told 'You've got to achieve or else' and there's no support system in place, that's going to be the biggest stressor. It's mainly breaking it down into small, doable steps," said Cathy Harris, president of the Texas School Nurses Organization.

For the most part, this class has risen to the challenge.

Ninety-six percent of the students, for example, passed the reading portion of the TAKS test as third-graders in 2002-03. And the number held back has always been low, including 2.5 percent of third-graders in 2003 and less than 1 percent of fifth-graders in 2005.

"Definitely, they know there's a lot at stake here," said Linda Macias, assistant superintendent for elementary instruction in the Cypress-Fairbanks school district. "Our teachers and our administrators are very good about motivating students and pumping them up."

Some Houston-area campuses take the exams so seriously that principals conduct tutoring sessions themselves or even promise to dye their hair a bright color if students score high enough. They use pizza, parties and relaxed dress codes as incentives.

'It's kind of cool'

Facing a high-stakes test again as eighth-graders will be old hat for most of these kids. Educators say the spotlight should help bolster achievement.

"Our middle-school scores aren't where we want them to be. We're a little bit excited about the opportunity these kids will have," said Laurence Binder, Cy-Fair's assistant superintendent for secondary instruction.

Kirsten Mamaux, an eighth-grader at Spillane Middle School in Cy-Fair, said she doesn't mind being in the first wave of students subjected to so many high-stakes tests.

"I really never thought about it. It's kind of cool," said the 13-year-old, who always strives to earn a "commended" performance on the test. "I guess I kind of feel special, since I did it all three times."

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