Thursday, August 11, 2005

A leader's take on Texas' big test


A leader's take on Texas' big test
EDITORIAL BOARD / Austin Am Statesman
Thursday, August 11, 2005

When schools and districts received their report cards from the Texas Education Agency last week, fewer earned the state's top marks — exemplary and recognized — and considerably more earned the lowest grades — acceptable and unacceptable.

Those ratings were based largely on how well Texas students in grades 3 to 11 performed on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. This is the second report in an occasional series in which we ask Texans about their opinions regarding the state's high-stakes testing program. This time, we talk to Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.

You get the feeling that Neeley is about to turn cartwheels when she starts talking about the TAKS. Her enthusiasm comes from the significant academic progress that Texas public schools have shown since the state began its high-stakes testing program more than a decade ago. There's no argument there.

Under the testing system, children in South Texas barrios must meet the same passing standards on the TAKS as students in Eanes' upscale neighborhoods. Kids in sparsely populated rural West Texas school districts are learning and being tested on the same academic skills as those who live in Austin or Round Rock.

"Regardless of what your stand is on high-stakes testing, whether you are for it or against it, the one positive outcome I believe all people can agree on is that we have done a better job closing the achievement gap for all children," Neeley said.

Texas still might be in the dark ages — when football ruled — if schools weren't required to test all children in grades 3 through 11, including those who don't speak English, come from poor families or who are in special education. But the testing system goes further, requiring schools to look at student performance as a group and by individual subgroups. So if students as a whole meet passing standards, but any subgroup within that total does not, then the entire school flunks. That means a school is graded on the performance of individual student groups — such as African American, Hispanic, Anglo, special education and economically disadvantaged students — as well as the whole. No more cloaking.

That kind of accountability has made schools pay attention to the performance of their weaker students, and that's a plus.

Neeley points out that the TAKS is more rigorous than its predecessor, the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills). TAKS includes math, social studies, reading, writing, language arts and science. Students in grades 3 through 11 are required to take exams, which are given in English and Spanish. We're all for measuring performance, tracking progress and raising the academic bar.

But the TAKS is not without critics, including teachers and parents. Where we disagree with Neeley is the way in which the TAKS is being used in some grades. Third- and fifth-graders who flunk it can't be promoted unless a special committee waives the requirement. That means a single test carries more weight in determining a student's academic progress than a student's grades or his or her teacher.

All of those factors should count, and no single test should be cause for retention.

We're also concerned that the state is not providing public schools enough money to meet tougher academic standards on the TAKS.

To those who criticize Texas schools for putting too much emphasis on testing, Neeley gives this answer:

"When students aren't doing well, it shows up on (the TAKS). It gives us time to reteach, have tutorials and remediate, because our goal is for all our children to graduate on time with their peers ready to enter higher education either through a community college or four-year college or university or a technical institute or the military. It's our goal to make sure all Texas high school graduates will be ready."

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