Adding It All Up

What does it really mean to pass the TAAS?

Blacks and Hispanics are gaining on whites, if you look at what percentage are passing. But if you look at what percentage of students are scoring above 85 on TAAS, according to charts Scott created using TEA data, gains for blacks and Hispanics haven't been as high. Forty-two percent of whites scored above 85 in 1998, while in contrast 20 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of blacks reached that score. "Yes, more students are passing the TAAS test," Scott says. "But let's look at closure of the equity gap in a more meaningful way."

After the now-famous Edgewood case that forced the state to equalize funds to rich and poor districts, the Texas Legislature defined seven public education goals, one of which was that "the achievement gap between educationally disadvantaged students and other populations will be closed." That was in 1984. By the time the state defined its educational goals for the new millennium, "Goals 2000," the standard had changed; now the equity gap would simply "decrease." This is one of those subtle details that Scott picks up on. It's evidence, he says, that the state is all but forsaking the bottom rung of students.

The Texas Education Agency proudly touts the narrowing of the equity gap, but has it looked at the disparities at the top achievement levels? Apparently officials there didn't see what Scott sees. "We've taken a look at those numbers," Smisko says. "I do not recall that there's a wider gap."

The TAAS's lack of rigor and the low number of students who make top marks have serious financial and personal ramifications down the line, particularly when students try to get advanced degrees. Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, says that while the TAAS paints a good portrait of elementary kids, it loses students by the time they get to high school, a problem that could be fixed by Moses's proposal to add tests in ninth and 11th grade.

Stevens points out that Texas's flagship universities such as the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M can't keep up with their cousins in other states when it comes to retaining students and granting diplomas. "[The graduation rate is] dramatically lower," Stevens says. "Now that's something that ought to concern us."

In the two-year budget cycle ending in 1999, the state's public colleges and universities spent $172 million on remedial education for people who could not pass the entrance exam, says State Higher Education Coordinating Board spokesman Ray Grasshoff. That's up from $38.6 million spent in the two-year budget cycle ending in 1989, a 445 percent increase. Remediation is far more expensive, and less effective, than early intervention, which is why Governor Bush's education plan emphasizes reading in the early grades. Of the class that entered Texas colleges in 1989, according to a study by conservative public policy analyst Jeff Judson, 53.6 percent required remediation and, of those, only 4.9 percent had received a degree after six years. Grasshoff says the number of students needing remedial help (some portion of which are returning adult students) has hovered at around 50 percent, noting that the number of hours of remediation the state provides is no longer increasing dramatically.

Judson also notes that the remediation problem is not unique to Texas; nationwide, 90 percent of students entering urban community colleges require remediation. This failure to prepare students for the wider world translates into figures such as this one cited by Judson: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in three San Antonians aren't literate enough to fill out a job application.

As TAAS scores rise, so does public opinion. Texas education, apparently, has climbed out of the dry hole it drilled itself into during the '80s. Commissioner Moses lauds teachers and students for pulling through the dark times. There's still a long way to go, of course, but the TEA takes pride in what it has wrought.

Yet since the beginning of the TAAS in the early '90s, educators have been looking for some indication -- other than the word of the Texas Education Agency -- that rising TAAS scores mean better-educated Texans. The proof is equivocal at best. On some national tests, Texas's scores have even gone down.

Pat Porter, the TEA's deputy director of assessment, says there are two independent validations of Texas's gains: the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced "nape"), a group of tests that track a statistical sampling of students in 48 participating states (in 1990 only 40 were participating); and the commercial norm-referenced tests that the state gives to a sample of students every few years.

Porter points with pride to a November 1998 report, in which the National Education Goals Panel examined Texas and North Carolina, the two states with the largest average gain on the NAEP reading and math tests between 1990 and 1996. The report applauds both states for their highly developed accountability systems, both of which, the report says, were the result of sustained involvement by the states' business communities.

Texas's minority students in particular made an impressive showing on the NAEP math tests: The state is No. 1 among states with similar demographics, including New York and California. And although Texas ranks 20th overall in eighth-grade math, its black and Hispanic students are sixth and ninth, respectively.

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