Adding It All Up

What does it really mean to pass the TAAS?

Even with the generally buoyant, election-stoked mood about public education in Texas, you don't have to look far to find the bad news. No farther than the comfortable north Houston living room of Larry and Stephanie Johnson on a Wednesday night.

Ever since Stephanie's teenage son, Stecil, died in a car wreck in 1997, 30 or so of his friends have gathered each week to talk about their lives. Most sit in a big circle, casually flopping against one another. One young woman has brought along her daughter, a toddler who leans back on the couch and falls asleep. Crisp athletic gear and Afros rival preppy, tucked-in T-shirts and fades. The mood of the group has changed over time, lightening from the nihilistic adolescent depression after Stecil's death, when his friends were convinced they would share his fate.

The topic of the night is education. High school senior Stayve Thomas, an outgoing rapper who says he considers it his responsibility to make school "entertaining for [his] peers," has brought in a friend who dropped out with only four months to go. Stayve's goal is to enlist the members of STECIL (the name was converted into an acronym for "Strengthened Through Education -- Community Inspired Leaders") to help him convince Komesha Mitchell to go back to school. If she does, he says, he'll marry her.

Neither his promise nor the conversation appears to sway Komesha, who has enrolled in GED classes and says, "School just wasn't for me." For some of these mostly black teens, questions about high school come down mostly to this: Do they go, or do they drop out? Only 50 percent of African-Americans in the state who enter ninth grade get a diploma four years later, and that number hasn't changed as TAAS scores have, to use HISD's term, "soared."

The group talks about favorite teachers and not-so-favorites, such as the coach whose idea of a history class was showing films every day. One student, a football player headed for a scholarship at Michigan State, mentions almost off-handedly that he was permitted to cheat on tests because as an athlete he had "pull" with teachers and administrators. He expects college to be easy, he says, because if you're a football player "all you have to do is be in class."

Those who have already made it to college have a different story: Their first semester came as a shock. All of them felt ill prepared for upper-level work. Asked if they felt high school administrators cared for them, one says, "They care about us passing TAAS and getting out of there."

Another chimes in, "They care about us passing TAAS so they can look a little good."

Across the state, the headlines are so regular as to form a refrain: TAAS scores are up; TAAS scores are up; TAAS scores are up. The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which tests primarily reading, math and writing, is the way Texas measures its education system. It is given in grades three through eight and again in high school, comes in English and Spanish versions, and sometimes -- to the learning disabled -- is even administered orally. A school's passing rate on the TAAS is the primary way parents, districts and the state can tell how well the school is doing; it's the main factor in a school's rating of "exemplary," "recognized," "acceptable" or "low-performing." Since 1994, statewide passing rates have risen from 60 to 84 percent in math, 76 to 87 percent in reading and 79 to 87 percent in writing. The Houston Independent School District's scores have increased even more than the state's.

The state spends more than $20 million a year to give the TAAS test, which is considered the linchpin of the state's accountability system. A growing number of states are struggling to implement good accountability systems, which have several components: clear curriculum standards; school report cards or ratings; sanctions for poor performance and assessment, a way to measure whether schools are meeting standards. Texas's accountability system is considered advanced compared to most states and rates well in independent reviews.

Yet not much scrutiny has been given to the assessment component, the TAAS. In fact, with all the hoopla over the passing rate, the test itself is almost overlooked -- not surprising considering that the passing rate is an easy-to-grasp number, while it is necessary to plow through countless studies, stats and technical data to get at the heart of the TAAS.

What does it mean to pass the TAAS? In practical terms, except for the fact that a student must pass it to get his high school diploma, nothing. It doesn't mean a student can get into college. It doesn't mean a student can do high school math. All it means, if outside assessments are to be believed, is that a student can pass a pretty easy test.

"Fred poured an eight-ounce glass of juice from a full quart pitcher. How many ounces of juice were left in the pitcher?"

This TAAS question requires only simple subtraction, but if a student doesn't know how many ounces are in a quart, he might be stymied. No problem. Just flip back a few pages and find a weights and measurements conversion chart to make things a little easier, although there are still a few extra calculations needed to get from ounces to quarts. But by what grade should a student know how to answer this question?

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