Adding It All Up

What does it really mean to pass the TAAS?

"From our perspective, Texas is the model of the nation for standards and accountability," says Linda Edwards, a spokesperson for Governor Bush. "And Achieve is working to get other states to do what we've already been doing in Texas. So, in a sense, Texas is a model for the efforts of Achieve."

Yet Stevens says he hopes Texas will avail itself of Achieve's ability to do comparative analysis in the future, adding that it troubled him when Texas didn't look at what other states had done before coming up with its own curriculum standards (Texas standards rank third in the nation, according to the Fordham Foundation, and got a grade of "B").

Despite the agency's squeamish reaction to the American Federation of Teachers report, George Scott's studies and other outside reviews of the TAAS, Smisko says she'll take another look at Achieve. "Obviously, with our state progressing so well in testing and kids' performance, we believe we need to move on ... We welcome an objective analysis," she says, putting an emphasis on "objective."

The TAAS, which was originally intended to measure student performance, became a tool for measuring the success of educators and schools when the Legislature passed the education reform bill in 1993. Like any government-mandated test, it has always been, as Governor Bush put it ever so mildly when he recently announced changes to his TAAS-based plan to end social promotion, "controversial." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has called the test racially biased, and the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund is suing the state for the same reason. Parents have complained that the test is inappropriate, immoral and undermines parental authority. In short, it's a miracle the test exists at all.

But since the oil crash of the late '80s, when it became painfully obvious that the state's economy would have to diversify to survive, companies that do business in Texas have taken a serious interest in the state's education system. Organizations such as the reform-minded Texas Business and Education Council, founded by large companies in 1989, and the Governor's Business Council, a group of 100 CEOs started by former governor Ann Richards, have been the major architects of the accountability system.

These groups have the leverage to change the system -- TBEC initiated Moses's proposal to add ninth- and 11th-grade tests, Stevens says -- and they're not satisfied with it yet.

In fact, the changes Stevens has on his agenda echo what George Scott has been saying for years. Some are already in motion: This year the test scores of special education students and those that take the TAAS in Spanish will be counted as part of the accountability system, which is supposed to end the dubious -- if legal -- practice some schools use of exempting large numbers of students by designating them special ed or not proficient in English. By the end of next year, the TAAS will be brought in line with Texas's new curriculum, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, which schools began using this year and which experts say is richer and more rigorous than Texas's previous standards. And Moses wants to include science and social studies on the new 11th-grade test.

Furthermore, Stevens says teachers and schools might be more careful about the test's validity -- in other words, less likely to cheat -- if they had scores back soon enough to use them diagnostically in their own classes instead of just as a way to determine school ratings.

"Essentially, this thing is working, in its broadest way," says Stevens, "and the flaws and the problems need to be kept in perspective. I guess that's the concern I have with some of the critics. Their sense of proportion is wrong."

Yet Stevens sounds for all the world like George Scott when he says he'd like to see the number of students that score 85 or higher on the TAAS made part of the accountability system, particularly for schools with exemplary ratings. "The highest accountability rating shouldn't just be based on how many kids perform above minimum requirements on the test," Stevens says. " 'Exemplary' ought to mean that."

Roy Malonson, an ally of Scott's, chairman of the Acres Homes Chamber of Commerce and publisher of African-American News & Issues, says planned improvements for the TAAS should have come much earlier. "They're ending a lot of things after our report," says Malonson. "We've been hammering them for ten years."

Malonson says the large-business interests that have been the architects of the accountability system have very different concerns from small-businessmen like him. Since those businesses can afford to train their employees, Malonson says, they don't care if the accountability system is a "dog-and-pony show" that attracts development but doesn't produce fundamentally better results (a particularly interesting criticism, since Scott's organization also is funded by major companies).

"I depend directly on public education," Malonson says. "I can get the cream of the crop that doesn't even know how to answer the door or answer the phone."

But Stevens says large businesses have just as much interest in seeing the system work, saying that the demands on today's workers require critical thinking skills. "We need educated workers, not just trained workers," he says.

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