Adding It All Up

What does it really mean to pass the TAAS?

The state thinks students should master subtraction, with the help of a conversion chart, by the time they take the exit-level TAAS test, the one kids have to pass before they graduate from high school. This is the same test that asks students to estimate the length of a pencil: Is it 19 millimeters, 19 centimeters or 1.9 meters? It's the same test that Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Moses uses to refute charges that the TAAS test is too easy -- "Let's take the exit-level math test," Moses says. "I think you will be surprised."

The test walks students through more challenging questions, such as "Which ordered pair is the point of intersection of the lines y = 2x + 1 and 2y = x - 4?" On an algebra test, a student might have to graph those equations. On the TAAS, the lines are already graphed. All the student has to do is look at the graph and count over two and down three, to where the lines intersect. Still, there are more difficult problems: One asks students to find the lateral surface area of a cylinder. Most people might find that one tough, but once again the problem isn't as daunting as it could be; the necessary formulas are in the front of the booklet.

If these questions don't seem like high school-level material, it's because they're not. Although TEA officials insist the exit-level math test queries students on "early high school" skills, according to their own specifications it tests only curriculum for the eighth grade.

By contrast, a 12-year-old in Japan has to answer questions like this: "Jenny wanted to purchase two dozen pencils and a pen. Those items cost $8.45, and she did not have enough money. So she decided to purchase eight fewer pencils and paid $6.05. How much was a pen?"

Concerned about studies showing that American students can't compete internationally, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) looked at five American eighth-grade math tests: three widely used commercial tests and two state tests, including the TAAS. According to a panel of teachers and education experts, the TAAS had the lowest expectations for students, with all but two questions rated "easy" on a scale of easy, medium and hard (the other two were "medium"). Though none of the other tests rated well, the TAAS is the only one of the five that is all multiple choice.

Another report, this one funded by the Texas Education Agency and written by Temple Independent School District Director of Math and Science Kathleen Coburn, notes that 71 percent of questions on the exit-level TAAS cover material from the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade levels. Coburn says a generation of downgraded expectations in math has created chronically underprepared teachers. "Now nobody even knows what mathematics are. They think it's just computation. ...It just shows we've got a huge conceptual problem. There's something rotten. Something's very wrong."

Even more damning for the TAAS, a recent, more thorough independent review found the reading portion of the test for fourth, eighth and tenth grades had gotten easier over time which, if true, would render the state's rising scores meaningless. Harvard researcher Sandra Stotsky noted that the total number of words, the length of the passages and the number of unusual words (words not found on a standard list of 3,000 common words) had declined dramatically since 1995. That year, the difficulty of the passages, Stotsky says, was evenly distributed above and below the fourth-grade level. In 1998, however, there were more passages below grade level than at grade level, and none above.

Over that period of time, the percentage of fourth-graders passing the test increased from 79 to 89.

A similar study poked holes in the math portion of the TAAS. Although the TEA says firmly that all TAAS questions are "on grade level," researchers Paul Clopton, Wayne Bishop and David Klein said questions on the high school TAAS ranged from third to seventh grade, with most falling at the sixth-grade level.

The researchers said while the math test stayed at the same level of difficulty from year to year, it "focused on raising achievement only to a minimal level," a level "not consistent with the high expectations for mathematics achievement that are being called for from one end of the country to another."

For a school to be rated "acceptable," only 45 percent of its students have to pass the TAAS, though that number increases by 5 percentage points each year.

"By [the TEA's] own standards," says George Scott, president of the watchdog group that commissioned the two studies, "thousands and thousands of kids don't measure up. This is a vicious cycle of distortion that makes people believe these 'acceptable,' these 'recognized,' these 'exemplary' tags really mean something."

Every government institution has a critic like George Scott. As president of the Tax Research Association, he's adversarial, he's impolitic, he splits hairs and tracks inconsistency with an eagle eye. He's fed up, persistent, and he demands data and explanations. The game Scott plays with the Texas Education Agency is like a game of schoolyard tetherball: They spin data one way; he spins it the other.

Defenders of the state's accountability system call Scott -- off the record -- an obsessed, publicity-hungry man whose idea of constructive criticism is to call a press conference and release his latest study. Scott, who resigned from the Commissioner's Accountability Advisory Group in a huff after the agency tried to block him from getting some data due to pending litigation, maintains that the public has the right to know exactly what the much-trumpeted gains in education really mean.

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