Adding It All Up

What does it really mean to pass the TAAS?

As for the reading study, the education agency again quibbles over methodology. But it doesn't argue with Stotsky's assertions that the reading passages have gotten easier; instead, they say, the test's difficulty has stayed the same because the test questions have gotten harder.

Asked if she found any valid information in the two Tax Research Association studies, TEA's Associate Commissioner for Curriculum, Assessment and Technology Ann Smisko replied, "No, not really. The analysis is not as we would have analyzed the test."

The agency is not the only defender of the TAAS. Although educators initially fought against accountability, many have come on board rather than miss the train altogether. As the screws tighten-- this year, for example, the state will include special ed and Spanish TAAS scores in the accountability ratings -- educators don't want to see the TAAS toughen up, especially since they're still struggling to get kids to pass. "There is nothing wrong with that test," says Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon. "It's a minimum-skills test."

Confronted by critiques of the TAAS, the Texas Education Agency reacts not by reexamining the test, but by circling the wagons. Smisko says she has not seen the American Federation of Teachers study of the TAAS math test. Told that it rated TAAS the easiest of five tests, she chuckles and says, "That's the opinion of a panel. We have teacher committees that look at every single item. ...We have more than 6,000 educators participating in the item development process."

The TAAS has been sold to the public as a criterion-referenced test, which means it tests an objective set of things which the Texas Board of Education has decided it wants kids to know. Kids don't get a percentile ranking telling them how well they did compared to everyone else who took the test, as they would on a national standardized test such as the Stanford, because that's not the point.

However, most people don't realize that the TAAS is not solely based on what kids ought to be able to do; it's calibrated to what they already can do. Each potential TAAS question is field-tested, and the ones that are too hard, too easy or biased (if a significant number more boys get it right than girls, for example) are thrown out. According to Temple ISD's Coburn, the actual test is constructed so that if the kids who answered the field questions were taking it, a certain percentage of them would pass: 75 percent on the reading test and 60 percent on the math test. Which is why a statewide overall passing rate of 72 percent should come as no surprise.

The practice of basing tests on how well students do is widely accepted by testing experts, and it makes a certain amount of sense, particularly if, as in Texas, the questions are based on the state standards to begin with. But the practice is not without its critics, who say it tethers student achievement to old levels. Matthew Gandal, director of standards and assessment at Achieve Inc., a Cambridge-based nonprofit organization that reviews state accountability systems, says that while states must avoid making tests so difficult that few can pass, "it does seem counterintuitive at a time when we're trying to raise our standards higher than they've ever been before -- to a level that kids in other countries have reached -- to strip our tests of questions that kids can't answer correctly simply because kids can't answer them correctly."

Alicia Ruffin is a serious young black woman on the cusp of 20, though she still wears the sassy overalls of a schoolkid. Ruffin says she made A's and B's when she attended Klein Forest High and passed the TAAS test with ease.

But when she started at the University of Houston two semesters ago, everything got harder. Because she didn't do well enough on the Texas Academic Skills Program, the test students have to pass before entering a state college or university, Ruffin had to take a remedial math course. Her GPA dropped to a 2.6, she says.

"I was really shocked," says Ruffin. "I kind of felt like I wasn't college material. I didn't know if I was smart enough."

Ruffin's situation is a perfect example of the difference between what people think the TAAS indicates and what it actually says. Using one of his favorite theatrical expressions, Scott says, "You can pass the TAAS test and still need a Hubbell Telescope to even be able to see college."

Although a 70 -- out of 92 -- is a passing score, you have to score an 80 before the Texas Education Agency says you have even a 75 percent chance of passing the public university entrance exam. You have to score an 85 to be exempt from taking the entrance exam.

The fact that the passing bar is set so low does a particular disservice to minority students like Ruffin, because the focus is on how many pass, rather than how many score high. Part of the accountability system's job is to help close "the equity gap," the chronic disparity in scores between whites and the economically advantaged on the one hand, and everybody else on the other.

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