Adding It All Up

What does it really mean to pass the TAAS?

Where Malonson and Scott see foot-dragging, Stevens and consultants such as Darvin Winick, who advises the Governor's Business Council, see strategic implementation.

Businesses realize, they say, that you can't change something as large and decentralized as public education all at once. Bringing the exit-level test in line with real-world expectations and ending exemptions are measures their organizations support, but all in due time. In the end, the issue is not so much how the system should change, but how fast it can.

They point to the new curriculum as evidence that the system is progressing. But even as the accountability system improves, the TAAS might still be left behind in the dust. The new test, according to TEA's Director of Assessment Keith Cruse, won't be any harder than the old one, since the tests are calibrated for difficulty from year to year.

Experience has shown that teachers are more likely to teach what's on the test than what's on the curriculum; if the TAAS emphasizes one kind of problem-solving skill, so will teachers. Some schools reportedly abandon all subjects not covered by the TAAS, and new material is pushed aside in favor of one more round of pretest practice. Instead of learning algebra and geometry, high school students review eighth-grade math. Teachers go to special TAAS training sessions; administrators check practice tests, buy test strategy books and spend their summers coming up with plan after plan designed specifically to raise scores. Bonuses and careers hang on the outcome of the TAAS -- not students' careers, but educators' careers.

And that, perhaps, is the shameful part: not so much that children can't pass the test (although that's distressing enough), but that so much effort, time, energy and money is poured into preparing for a test so easy that when a student does succeed on the TAAS, it means hardly anything at all.

E-mail Shaila Dewan at shaila_dewan@houstonpress.com.

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