Thursday, September 15, 2005

Gulf Coast pupils may face the TAKS test

Texas, Louisiana officials discuss which state's exit exam to use

06:43 AM CDT on Thursday, September 15, 2005

By KAREN AYRES / The Dallas Morning News

High school seniors who fled the Gulf Coast could soon face another hurdle – the Texas high school exit exam.

Education officials said this week that evacuees who enrolled in Texas schools as seniors will have to pass the state tests required to graduate, unless officials come up with another arrangement.
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If the testing is required, potentially thousands of high school seniors from Louisiana and Mississippi would take the tests, which are based on Texas curriculum, as early as next month. If they do not pass the first attempt, they would have three other chances, just as other Texas seniors do.

TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said there is no way to waive the state requirement that all students pass the exam to receive a Texas diploma.

"Right now, we have to go by what Texas law says," Ms. Culbertson said. "Unless the law is changed or we can work something out with Louisiana to test the students on their own test, the possibility of them having to take the Texas test is pretty strong."

No final decision yet

Susan Barnes, assistant commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, said Wednesday that her department is working with education officials in Louisiana to reach a final decision on the testing policy. She said the agency hopes to make a decision in the next few days.

"I cannot really give any detail because we don't have anything really solid at this moment," Ms. Barnes said. "We're very aware of the concern. We certainly don't want to add to any of the difficulty the students have coming into our schools."

Ms. Culbertson said many districts have been calling the state to find out whether evacuees' scores, for high schoolers and younger students, could affect their status on federal and state rankings.

"We really don't know how all of this is going to affect us," she said.

State officials have already decided that evacuees at all other grade levels will be required to take the standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, administered in the winter and spring.

However, TEA sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education to ask for a waiver from requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which uses testing data to measure school success. Officials plan to review the Texas system in the new year to address evacuees.

During a visit to Dallas on Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Tom Luce said it's going to take some time to resolve these issues.

"A lot of Louisiana kids want to graduate with a Louisiana diploma," he said. TEA Commissioner Shirley Neeley "is working to see how we might use the exit test from Louisiana to get the Louisiana high school diploma."

By Tuesday, nearly 38,000 evacuees had enrolled in Texas schools. It was not known Wednesday how many of those are high school seniors.

The Texas high school exit exam measures English language arts, social studies, science and math skills based on the state curriculum.

Last year, 91 percent of seniors passed all four required sections in time for graduation.

In Louisiana, students first take the state's graduate exit exam as 10th-graders. They are required to pass English language arts, math and either science or social studies to graduate.

About 95 percent of students passed all required sections by graduation last year, according to Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education.

However, records from last spring show many students in the Orleans Parish, one of the areas hardest hit by the hurricane, didn't fare so well. Nearly half of 10th-graders failed the math section and about 40 percent of 11th-graders failed the science and social studies sections.

Ms. Casper said her agency has been more focused on placing students over the past couple weeks and has not made decisions on how testing will be handled.

"All of that is still very much up in the air," she said.

Texas schools will likely have access to students' records from Louisiana in the coming days to get a better handle on evacuees' academic backgrounds.

Ms. Culbertson said the Texas test measures basic skills.

"Most students who have taken high school courses should be able to take the test," she said.

At a disadvantage

Nonetheless, Brad Lancaster, assistant superintendent for learner services in the Allen school district, said the test is clearly based on Texas curriculum that could pose a challenge to a newcomer.

"Regardless of whether they got here by Katrina or otherwise," he said, "that's going to be a tough way to take a test because they haven't been in the system."

Mr. Lancaster said his district, which has more than 130 evacuee students, puts on a "full-court press" with extra tutoring to help seniors who fail parts of TAKS prepare for retests before graduation.

Mr. Lancaster said he wouldn't be surprised if the state waived the requirement.

"There are so many parts of this situation that are so unfair on so many levels," Mr. Lancaster said. "Will a child's interest be served in light of this catastrophe by forcing them to take this state requirement? That's hard to say."

Karla Oliver, a spokeswoman for the Plano school district, which has more than 550 evacuees including 40 seniors, said her district is waiting for answers.

"We are looking for some directives from the state," Ms. Oliver said.

Staff writer Tawnell D. Hobbs contributed to this report.
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