Some students wouldn't have to pass test to move to the next grade, panel proposes
By ERICKA MELLON and GARY SCHARRER Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 21, 2008, 11:56PM
AUSTIN — Texas public school students could face less pressure on the TAKS test under a proposal that key lawmakers unveiled Tuesday to overhaul the state's school accountability system.
Under the plan, elementary and middle school students would no longer have to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to advance to the next grade level.
Schools still would be held accountable for low test scores, but they would get credit for improvement — even if students fell short of certain targets.
While several parents and school leaders praised the proposed changes to the school grading system as being more fair, others expressed concern that Texas would be lowering its standards. The Legislature is expected to consider the idea, offered by a special House-Senate committee on school accountability, next year.
"What this proposal does is eliminate the high-stakes testing in elementary schools, and I think that's a very positive development," said Spring Branch Superintendent Duncan Klussmann.
But one prominent member of the accountability committee disagreed with some of his colleagues, worried that Texas would return to a social promotion policy that allows children to advance to the next grade level regardless of their ability.
"I don't want to go back to the days where we just hope and pray that the system will find a way to retain or promote where appropriate," said attorney Sandy Kress, who served as a senior education adviser to President Bush.
Social promotions in Texas schools were supposed to end with a 1999 law pushed by then-Gov. George Bush, but lawmakers allowed an exception if a committee made up of the student's teacher, parent and principal agreed to the promotion despite failing test scores.
"Kids who can't read or can't do math get passed on," Kress said. "We see a substantial number of kids get passed on by those committees, and those kids are failing the next class as well. It's not working very well because the loophole is so darn big."
The revamped school grading system, which would require extra help for the struggling students, also would base annual performance ratings on three years of test scores instead of a single year and would give credit for student improvement. Districts would get judged on their financial health, too.
Pasadena ISD Superintendent Kirk Lewis applauded the move to averaging scores, noting that under the current system a school could be stigmatized with a low rating if it barely missed the mark in one subject one year.
"I think it will be helpful in taking some of the pressure off the schools," Kirk said. "I believe in accountability ... but the tweaks they're making, it appears it would be a positive improvement over what we've got."
Legislative leaders concede weaknesses in the current system — which rates schools on TAKS scores, graduation rates and dropout rates — and they heard complaints from educators and parents during hearings around the state this year.
"We found that the TAKS was the main focus of a lot of our education efforts, and it's a minimal-skills test," said House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.
The new system would incrementally increase standards so that within a decade Texas would perform among the top 10 states nationwide in terms of college and career readiness.
Up to legislators
Eissler, who co-chaired the accountability committee with Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said he expects lawmakers will embrace the recommendations and approve a revised system after they return to session in January. Echoing parents' complaints, Eissler said the current accountability system has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, with teachers focusing on drilling students to pass the TAKS.
Katie Coughlen, who has a son at Bellaire High School in the Houston Independent School District, said she would support the state putting less emphasis on standardized tests.
"I'm not a big fan of the TAKS test," she said. "A district like HISD has so many high-risk students that you can penalize a school for some issues that really aren't in their control."
For Nancy Lomax, a parent activist in Houston, the problem is with the teaching.
"I do think it is a problem when they spend too much time doing these rote things where you prepare for the test and are not really challenging the kids to think," she said.