the high-stakes testing Texas school districts now face is complex and not in the best interest of teaching and learning...the move to the new test and the trend toward even more days of testing is not a 'gut feeling that it's bad'; research says this is bad. The fact that there is a serious consequence for students and schools who don't measure up isn't in the best interest of students
by Caylor Ballinger \ El Paso Times
El Paso school officials are stuck in a riddle.
Their schools are seen as failing, thanks to a confusing ratings system that bases performance on "exemplary or not."
This performance is determined by the results of the administered Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.
The reality is that area schools are doing well, in some cases, performing at a very high level. The problem resides in the fact that TAKS doesn't grade on the commonly understood standard of pass or fail.
Administrators view the current system as complicated and confusing, and they believe the scores and the ratings can be misleading to the public, further damaging the image of the educator in the eyes of the taxpayers.
One school that has suffered the consequences is Tippin Elementary School.
Gina Rodriguez-Nunez, principal of the El Paso Independent School District school, said that despite passable scores above the 90 percent mark, Tippin did not reach "exemplary status" for the third straight year. Though there is no financial incentive tied to a school's rating, that mark is important to the community's residents.
"I think it's the recognition of it all," she said. "Teachers aren't given huge salaries and are going on the second year in a row without a raise. To them, it's the recognition. It's overall a sense of pride."
But for some, hope for a more understandable system is on the horizon. Starting in Spring 2012, according to a letter to administrators that was posted on the Web site of the Texas Education Agency, students will take the State of Texas Assessments of Academics Readiness exam.
They will no longer use the TAKS tests or rating systems, but they will be held to their earned ratings for the first two years of the STAAR exams.
The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills program is a standardized test used in primary and secondary schools statewide.
TAKS measures the student's attainment of reading, writing, math, science, and social studies skills that are required by the Texas education standards.
Every portion of the TAKS exam includes multiple-choice questions. The high school reading and English language arts tests require students to answer three open-ended questions: one on the literary selection, one on the expository piece, and one "crossover" synthesizing the two.
The writing and ELA tests include a written composition as well. The 9th-11th-grade reading test permits the use of a dictionary and/or thesaurus, and the high school math and science tests allow the use of calculators along with formula charts.
The TAKS tests are not timed.
In comparison, the State of Texas Assessments of Academics Readiness exam (STAAR) differs at the upper end of testing.
The STAAR program at grades 3-8 will assess the same subjects and grades that are currently assessed on TAKS. At the high-school level, grade-specific assessments will be replaced with 12 end-of-course assessments: Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra II, biology, chemistry, physics, English I, English II, English III, world geography, world history, and U.S. history.
STAAR also assigns time limits on testing.
Both TAKS and STAAR include the same number of testing days, 19.
There is no clear indication how the STAAR program will "grade" schools as their performance improves or declines year to year.
The public perception of the TAKS grading system is misleading, according to some educators.
Rodriguez-Nunez said her campus is not "exemplary" because only 21 percent of her subgroup of economically disadvantaged students earned a commended score in one of the subjects, falling short of the required 25 percent.
"I wish they would take a more equal look at the student population," she said. "No one is focusing on the major success we've had."
She said it's also a challenge because her school is not Title 1.
This means it receives less money because the school does not have enough economically disadvantaged students and doesn't have a budget that allows for additional tutors.
"I believe in the state assessments," she said. "I'm not against it. I'm against the inequity of it."
Suzanne Marchman, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the rating system has become more complicated over the years. For example, it now includes measures of improvement such as looking at multiple subgroups for each subject tested and then offering exceptions for close scores.
She said there has been some criticism for the current rating system, but a new test will usher in a new system and a new label for schools and districts.
"This is the last year under the accountability ratings as we know them," she said. "The desire is to have a system that is more even across the board."
A few years ago, the Texas Projected Measure was added. It inflated a school's scores if the campus above them did well.
The measure came under criticism from districts and state legislators who believed it painted a false picture. It was recently removed from the rating system, Marchman said. The timing of its removal and the fact scores will hold for two years was coincidental, not intentional.
She thinks the new test will bring new possibilities in how they determine ratings, although terms and measures have yet to be determined.
"I think you're going to see other things besides TAKS scores," she said, suggesting future ratings could possibly include SAT and ACT scores and career- and college-readiness scores.
Pauline Dow, associate superintendent for academics in the Ysleta district, said she would like the new ratings and assessments to be totally transformed.
She thinks the high-stakes testing Texas school districts now face is complex and not in the best interest of teaching and learning. She said the move to the new test and the trend toward even more days of testing is not a "gut feeling that it's bad; research says this is bad."
"The fact that there is a serious consequence for students and schools who don't measure up isn't in the best interest of students," she said.
She said the Texas Projected Measure rating system created an artificial ranking, and she is fine with not having to use it anymore.
EPISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia said he thought using the Texas Projected Measure was a mistake from the outset.
"To me, the most important thing is we're looking at all kids," he said. "The state exams should not be the absolute. There's a lot of intangibles that occur in the school."
Garcia said he thinks there is too much testing.
He would like the new rating system to look beyond test scores and include student scholarships and extracurricular involvement.
He said there is no perfect report card system -- each would have flaws -- but he emphasized that schools should be proud of overall student success.
"I think our report card system needs to be more expansive," he said. "We need a well-balanced student." Socorro Superintendent Xavier De La Torre said that in his opinion, the timing of a rating-system change does not reflect well on either the TEA or Education Commissioner Robert Scott.
"They're the ones who came up with the system and made it available to schools," he said.
De La Torre thinks the agency should have just continued with the current system.
He said the numbers should stand on their merit and do not need to be inflated.
"The TAKS has been shown to be the floor, not the ceiling," he said.
Caylor Ballinger may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6133.