By ERICKA MELLON | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
June 7, 2010
Texas schoolchildren generally performed better on the all-important TAKS test this year, but some superintendents, state lawmakers and statisticians are casting doubt on the gains.
That's because the Texas Education Agency required students to answer fewer questions correctly to pass most sections of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. In some cases, students could pass by getting fewer than half of the items right — an unusually low standard, according to several education researchers.
TEA officials say the questions, for the most part, were harder this year, so they followed a standard statistical process and lowered the number of items students needed to get correct.
“We didn't do anything differently than previous years,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe. “It wouldn't be fair to kids if this test wasn't at the same difficulty level from year to year.”
According to a Houston Chronicle analysis of TEA data, the state lowered the passing standards more this year than they have in at least the last two years.
The biggest change involved the social studies test for students in grades 8 and 10. This year, for example, eighth-graders had to answer correctly 21 of 48 questions — or 44 percent. Last year, the passing standard was 25 questions, or 52 percent.
State Rep. Scott Hochberg, vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, criticized the lower standard.
“How can a score of less than 50 percent be passing on a test that's supposed to assure us that students know the curriculum?” the Houston Democrat said.
“You can get more than halfway to passing just by guessing,” he said.
‘Makes you wonder'
Bob Linn, a past president of the American Educational Research Association, expressed similar concerns about setting a 44-percent passing standard on a multiple-choice test.
“That's getting low,” said Linn, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado. “If I were designing the test, I would like to have some questions that were not quite as challenging so the students have a higher likelihood of getting them right.”
TEA Deputy Associate Commissioner Gloria Zyskowski said agency officials set the bars high enough so “students can't pass the test by chance alone.”
Depending on the grade level and subject, the passing bar this year ranged from 44 percent to 73 percent.
School district officials said they want to celebrate the gains they're seeing in this year's TAKS scores, but some are questioning the results. On the eighth-grade social studies test, 95 percent of students statewide passed, up from 92 percent in 2009 and 91 percent the year before.
Terry Grier, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, said his counterpart in Dallas ISD, Michael Hinojosa, called him recently to compare some surprising jumps in test scores.
“While we're very proud of the work we're doing,” Grier told the school board last week, “we need to also look very closely at how the state is measuring proficiency.”
Alief school board member Sarah Winkler said officials in her district also were applauding TAKS gains, but she expressed doubt after learning the passing bar was lowered for most grade levels and subjects.
“We worked real hard to help these kids do better but now it makes you wonder,” she said.
Winkler, the president of the Texas Association of School Boards, added that she was shocked to find out Monday that the TEA doesn't set the passing bar — called the cut score — until after students take the TAKS.
TEA officials said they work with their testing contractor, Pearson, to write an exam that is equally as hard each year. To help gauge the level of difficulty of the questions, they first “field test” them, or give them to a sample of students. Once those questions are on the actual test, TEA analyzes whether students did worse or better than expected based on the field test results, Zyskowski explained.
Put simply, if enough students miss questions that were supposed to be easy, the TEA adjusts the number they need to answer correctly to pass, or vice versa.
Such adjusting is standard and appropriate in the testing industry, but the passing bar shouldn't vary widely from year to year, said Pete Goldschmidt of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“This is a slightly large fluctuation but not unreasonable,” Goldschmidt said of the eight-point change on the social studies exams. “I realize it's coincidental with an election year. But that isn't sufficient evidence to suggest that the cut scores were altered to get any sort of outcome on purpose.”
Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, is up for re-election this fall, and his record on education has been a hot topic in his bid against the Democratic candidate, former Houston mayor Bill White.
State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said the changes in the passing bar were curious.
“I think TEA and the governor need to explain how this low pass rate standard was reached and assure parents that there aren't political games being played,” he said.
A Perry spokeswoman directed questions to the TEA.