Adding It All Up

What does it really mean to pass the TAAS?

John Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, hotly defends the education agency from attackers like Scott. "The people doing this are not charlatans and manipulators. I know they are insulted by accusations that they are simply manipulating the system and these do not reflect real gains," Stevens says. "These are good and honorable professionals who are doing a good job for Texas. ...I think it's unfair for [Commissioner Mike Moses's] leadership and their work to be denigrated by people whom I believe have an ideological and political agenda to discredit public schools. It's not fair."

The state's defenders are quick to accuse critics of being anti-public-school, a blanket defense that rebuffs earnest critics and snipers alike. In the TEA world-view, it seems, critics are either 1) out to dismantle the free world, beginning with public education or 2) have no idea what they're talking about.

For his part, Scott angrily insists he's always been on the side of public education. In a 1996 letter to Moses, Scott warned of his fear that public education's greatest risk was being "cannibalized" by school vouchers. Scott's allies include pro-public-school, if critical, minority leaders such as Roy Malonson, chairman of the Acres Homes Chamber of Commerce. Scott has weighed in on virtually every school issue, from bonds to administrative spending to TAAS.

Scott's aggressive stance gets more media attention than it does results from the education establishment. Newspaper editorials laud Scott's efforts, while educators sniff at his "methodology."

For example, last school year the Houston Independent School District began administering the Stanford, a commercial standardized test, in an effort to complement the data provided by the TAAS. Scott and the Texas Research Association saw this as an opportunity to get an outside measure of how well the state accountability system was working. He looked to see if kids at schools rated "exemplary" had scored on or above grade level according to the Stanford. He found that 38 to 83 percent, depending on the grade, had not. Schools rated "recognized" or "acceptable" fared even worse.

It seems like a fairly simple comparison, but HISD spokesman Terry Abbott complained to the Houston Chronicle that Scott's report was "not fair," and the district asked a group of University of Houston sociologists to take Scott's TRA study apart. They released a report saying Scott had made "inappropriate methodological assumptions," but they skirted the issue of his actual findings.

The researchers looked at each student who took both tests and concluded that one test was a pretty good predictor of performance on the other, which would seem to actually lend support to Scott's comparison. But the researchers did not say how well kids passing the TAAS actually performed on the Stanford.

"They were just saying, 'Nasty George, he shouldn't be saying our schools aren't as good as our schools say they are,' " says independent testing contractor Carl Shaw, who has served as director of testing for the Houston and Fort Bend independent school districts and on numerous Texas Education Agency committees on assessment.

As for the TRA studies, the TEA released a written rejoinder so poorly argued it appears it willfully misunderstood the studies. The agency called researchers' statements that test questions are below grade level "inherently opinion," despite the fact that students' actual performance on the questions correlated perfectly with the study; in other words, more students correctly answered questions the researchers said were at the third-grade level than questions they said were at the sixth-grade level.

Calling the studies' authors "novices" in the testing field and arguing that "since none of these hired reviewers are from Texas, they cannot be familiar with the daily workings of the statewide assessment program," the unsigned TEA rejoinder accuses TRA's researchers of offering "inaccurate, unsubstantiated and controversial opinions regarding the quality of the TAAS."

But the authors' resumes don't bring the word "novice" to mind. Stotsky, who wrote the reading study, has helped develop the Massachusetts English language assessment, has evaluated education programs for NASA and has ranked state reading standards for the Fordham Foundation's national survey. As for the math study's authors, David Klein and Wayne Bishop are both math professors at California State University, and both have served on numerous California education committees. Paul Clopton, a biomedical research statistician, founded the math education advocacy group Mathematically Correct (of which Klein and Bishop are members) and serves on the panel that is developing California's statewide math test.

In an attempt to prove that the researchers have some menacing "agenda," the TEA quoted from the Mathematically Correct web site, saying the organization is "devoted to the concerns raised by parents and scientists about the invasion of our schools ... and the need to restore basic skills to math education."

The agency's implication is clear: Mathematically Correct is an anti-public-school organization concerned about government control of what children learn. Yet log on to the web site, and it's easy to see what the agency left out: The organization is mostly concerned about "the invasion of our schools by the New-New Math," referring to a trend toward what some consider to be the dumbing-down of math curricula.

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