Sunday, August 31, 2008

Professor worries TAKS test breeds ignorant voters

This is very interesting. Check out Dr. Casye's article "What the TAKS Test Can Teach Us About Our Students"


Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Aug. 23, 2008

Kevin Jefferies may live in The Heights, but he's not a latte-sipping, arugula-munching elitist.

If he were, he wouldn't get so much pleasure out of commuting to Brazoria County for his job as head of the Economics and Government Department at Alvin Community College.

The 47-year-old University of Houston Ph.D. enjoys his students and works hard to figure out the best way to teach them.

"Since only a small fraction of my students will pursue political science, my objective is to train citizens," he wrote in a paper he presented last February at an American Political Science Association conference in San Jose, Calif.

No voter registration cards
That paper, "What the TAKS Test can Teach Us about Our Students," should be required reading for the Legislature's blue-ribbon panel that is studying whether Texas should revise its school accountability system with its heavy reliance on the controversial Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

About 90 percent of Jefferies' students are eligible to be first-time voters in a presidential election this year. The paper explains why that fact makes him nervous.

Too nervous, for example, to make it too easy for the students to vote.

"I don't have voter registration cards in my classroom," he said Friday. "I say if you can figure out how to register, then you can vote."

Although Jefferies' paper is a critique of the TAKS test, his research didn't start out as an attempt to assess the test. It began when he decided to use questions from the previous year's test (made available by the Texas Education Agency) at the beginning of a semester to see how much his students knew.

He was pleased to see they scored percentages in the mid-70s. It's not bad to start a course with the equivalent of a "C" on a test.

On some questions, the students did especially well. About 98 percent correctly answered multiple-choice questions about Miranda warnings.

More than 90 percent correctly said a section of the Declaration of Independence referring to King George's misuse of the military led to the Constitution's putting the military under the president.

But Jefferies soon discovered that the student's performance on TAKS questions didn't mean they understood the basic concepts that should provide the starting point for a college government course.

So the next semester he gave students an open-ended test on the same subject matter before giving them the TAKS questions.

Only seven in 10 knew what the Miranda warning was. Only 35 percent could say why freedom of speech was important, and 30 percent understood that King George's abusive use of the military led to the constitutional provision making the president commander in chief.

An aha! moment
As he looked closer at the TAKS questions, Jefferies saw that they were structured in such a way that the question suggested the answer.

The Miranda question, for example, presents the warning and asks the purpose. Only one of the choices mentioned protections for the accused. The other "answers" suggest that the warning is to promote job security for lawyers or limits the rights of judges.

The question on King George's use of the military gives a similarly obvious choice of answers. One suggests that it led to Congress's ability to legislate taxes, and another that it caused a provision that the vice president may be impeached. It's not to hard to figure that the president's role as commander in chief is the right answer.

"The answer to the question can easily be inferred from a close reading of the question itself," Jefferies wrote.

So not only does the constant drilling on facts for the TAKS test limit the time students can spend learning higher thinking skills and the ability to write, but the test may not even be measuring knowledge so much as an ability to glean clues from questions to get the right answers.

That the TAKS test wasn't measuring knowledge about government is further suggested by some of the definitions Jefferies' students offered.

Legislature? "Group within the government that is responsible for determining specified issues."

Unalienable rights? "Rights given to Americans," or, "Rights of non-citizens."

Jefferies concludes that one reason so many young people are alienated from politics is they don't even understand the language necessary to engage in it.

Still, he presses on.

"I'm not completely discouraged," he says. "But there's a lot of work to be done."

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at

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