Friday, December 04, 2009

Texas students struggle on early versions of end-of-course tests

Texas students struggle on early versions of end-of-course tests
06:31 AM CST on Thursday, December 3, 2009

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – As hundreds of Texas school districts get a jump on the end-of-course tests that will debut statewide in two years, preliminary results indicate a large number of students will have trouble passing the exams.

High school students will be required to pass the battery of 12 end-of-course tests beginning with freshmen entering high school in the 2011-12 school year. But many districts are already giving early versions of the tests to their students, and some are even using them as final exams in Algebra I and four other courses.

The Algebra I test was administered to nearly 79,000 students earlier this year, and just 57 percent of those students passed the 50-question exam. About 11 percent achieved "commended performance" for answering most of the items correctly.

Results were similar on four other tests measuring knowledge and skills in biology, chemistry, geometry and U.S. history. In biology, the 58,000 who took the exam answered about 60 percent of the questions correctly.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said he is not surprised by preliminary results. He noted that the tests are more rigorous and specific than the single high school graduation test that students have been taking for years.

Passing rates on the tests "will be lower initially because students are taking a new exam that reflects a new culture of testing," he said. "The new end-of-course exams are going to take some getting used to for both students and teachers."

Eissler also said he is pleased to see that nearly 350 school districts are already using one or more of the end-of-course tests in their high schools. TEA officials had no data on how many high schools are using the tests as the final exam in those courses.

"Any time you can get some experience with a new testing program, it helps not only the kids but the teachers who are responsible for making sure their students have the right skills," said Eissler, House sponsor of the 2007 legislation that created the end-of-course exams and scrapped the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills graduation test.

12 tests
Under the testing law, students will take the 12 end-of-course tests instead of the TAKS, submitting to three exams each in English, math, science and social studies. Students will be required to earn a passing average on the three tests given in each subject area to get a high school diploma.

Officials will decide where to set the bar for passing the exams before the tests start to count. Exams will be given near the end of the school year in May.

A student could fail some of tests as long as he or she did well enough on the others. But students in the "recommended" or "distinguished achievement" graduation plans would have to pass the two college readiness exams – Algebra II and English III.

Those in the minimum plan for graduation would need just a passing average in each subject area.

The new exams will also count 15 percent toward a student's final grade in each subject.

While five of the tests have been developed so far, two others – physics and world geography – were field-tested this spring and will be available for schools in the spring of 2010. Three other exams – English I and II, and Algebra II – will be field-tested at selected schools next spring and be made available to schools a year later.

The final two tests – English III and world history – will be rolled out for field-testing in the spring of 2011. Field-testing allows developers of an exam to refine its questions and discard those that most students cannot answer.

"We will get more teaching done when a teacher can concentrate on his or her subject and not have to worry about students taking the TAKS [graduation] test," Eissler said. "Our schools also need to address areas of weakness, and the sooner we can do that, the better."

Suzanne Marchman of the TEA said as the new tests near implementation, more districts are expected to use them in the core subjects to get an idea how their students will fare.

"We will probably see more districts opt to use the tests in the next two years" so they can get a snapshot of how their students might perform, she said. "It will help them identify the areas where they need improvement and allow them to work with teachers and their curriculum so they can address those areas."

She noted that use of the tests is strictly voluntary for school districts until 2011.

Teachers' concerns
Supporters of the end-of-course exams said one of the biggest advantages is that students will be tested right after completing each course, when the knowledge is still fresh in their minds. With the current TAKS exit-level test, students are asked questions in subjects they may have taken two or three years before the date of the exam.

"End-of-course exams will allow a more in-depth study of a particular topic, as well as provide a more timely assessment of a student's grasp of that subject," said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, author of the testing legislation.

But some teacher groups have questioned whether the new exams will actually ratchet up the pressure on students and teachers as students are required to take a dozen different tests and score high enough to earn their diplomas.

"We are concerned about the expansion of high-stakes testing in high school," said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. "Basically, we're going to shift from one high-stakes test to 12 high-stakes tests."

Results from the current high school graduation test earlier this year indicated that nearly one in seven seniors from the class of 2009 failed one or more sections of the exam and didn't receive a diploma.

Minority students were most affected by the graduation requirement as 23 percent of black students and 19 percent of Hispanics were unable to pass all four sections of the exam, measuring skills in English, math, science and social studies. About 7 percent of white students and 5 percent of Asian students failed.

Texas was one of the first states to mandate that high school students pass a basic skills test to get a diploma, a requirement that has been on the books since 1987.

A total of 12 end-of-course tests will be taken by high school students beginning with incoming freshmen in the 2011-12 school year. But five of the tests are already being used on a voluntary basis in hundreds of school districts that want to get a jump on the new testing program. Here's how many of the state's 1,031 districts are using each of the tests:

Subject Districts
Algebra I 349
Biology 260
Geometry 246
Chemistry 233
U.S. history 201
SOURCE: Texas Education Agency

Also see TAKS scores: D-FW area schools, 2005-2009

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