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Houston & Texas News
July 1, 2008, 12:00AM
Moment of truth for 8th-graders
Thousands won't get into high school this year unless they pass the TAKS test
By ERICKA MELLON
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Thousands of eighth-graders across Texas will sit this week for the biggest test of their young lives.
For the first time in the state, eighth-graders must pass standardized exams in math and language arts to be promoted to high school automatically. The students had two chances during the school year, but that was not enough for many who failed the exams on both attempts.
"When I take a test, I get nervous and just forget," said Kristen Diaz, who is retaking eighth-grade math at HISD's Patrick Henry Middle School this summer in hopes of passing the state test on her third try. "I even asked for extra work because I don't want to stay here no more."
Statewide, nearly one in five eighth-graders has yet to pass the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
That's at least 55,918 students who face retention in eighth grade if they again fail the test, which is being given for the third and final time today.
Texas is one of the toughest states when it comes to tying grade promotion to testing. Students in grades 3, 5 and — now — 8 must pass the TAKS in some subjects to advance. High school students must pass four exams to graduate.
The state law does provide a loophole at the lower grade levels. Students who fail the exams can ask a school committee — consisting of the principal, a teacher and one of the student's parents — to promote them anyway. The committees are supposed to consider whether the student would succeed the next year with some extra help.
School districts negligent?
Supporters praise the flexibility of the committees, while critics complain that too many students are being promoted or are not getting the special attention they need to catch up. Now, urban and suburban school districts alike find themselves with eighth-graders who cannot prove they have basic math and reading skills.
"We've pushed them through, and we've never done any of the remediation that the law called for," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who lobbied for the 1999 law mandating the promotion tests.
"It's negligence on the part of the school districts," she added. "For the most part, superintendents thought, 'We'll just get around this law.' Well, no, you won't. Now you're faced with it big time."
Then-Gov. George Bush championed the law before his run for president. The intent was to curb social promotion, or the widespread practice of allowing students to advance a grade, no matter their academic skills, so they can be in class with peers their own age.
In the Houston Independent School District, the state's largest, 27 percent of the eighth-graders tested — or 3,115 students — face retention if they fail the math TAKS today. The eighth-grade language arts test has tripped up 1,046 students, or 9 percent of those tested. The third administration of the language arts test is on Wednesday.
Statewide, eighth-graders did better in language arts than in math. Only 5 percent of students, or 16,490, failed the test in that subject.
HISD, like other districts across the state, has been offering TAKS tutorials this summer. Chief Academic Officer Karen Garza said she is confident more students will pass the exams on their third try, but she knows principals, teachers and parents still face a difficult decision in the coming weeks when test scores come back.
"The research has been pretty clear about the dangers of retention," Garza said, noting that students who are retained are more likely to drop out of school. "I'm also not a proponent of just passing them to the next grade. It's a delicate balance."
Kathy Christie, who has studied promotion policies nationwide, said schools need to do a better job of catching up struggling students, regardless of whether they are forced to repeat a grade.
"Sometimes I think kids are retained and they sit in a classroom where they know three-fourths of the material," said Christie, chief of staff of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
3rd time's the charm
Gilbert Ponce, an eighth-grader at Patrick Henry Middle School, expressed confidence last week that he would succeed on the math TAKS this time around. He said he previously missed the passing mark by one question, but he is having an easier time learning fractions in his smaller summer school class.
"I'm learning more than what I learned in regular school — mainly because I didn't pay attention," he said, adding that he understands why the state has promotion requirements. "You gotta be prepared, you know."