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Canetti says that her children's instructors begin preparing the class for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in September, dwelling on it so much that it creates this "aura of finality to the point where these kids can't even sleep the night before."
That pressure is hardly new in TAAS-crazed Texas. Pupils need to pass to advance to some grade levels. School performances can send some academic careers soaring with bonuses and promotions -- or detour others into a dead end. Even real estate values may ride on a district's scores.
Now, the publishing world has awakened to the potential of the high-pressure stakes. Drew Johnson just authored Ultimate TAAS 8th Grade to give teens the advantage on the test.
It would seem that after five years of suffering through the all-day exam, an eighth-grader would already know the drill. But test taking, as Johnson points out, is a skill. And although teachers may be cramming right angles and synonyms down students' throats, Johnson says, they're not feeding them strategy.
The 106-page guide from Kaplan Press focuses on testing tactics and provides several sample questions. It does not cover the material students should already know. "The book is not a math guide. You're supposed to already know fractions, but by looking at the book you'll have an idea of how fractions will appear on the test," Johnson says.
Understanding what the test will look like is more realistic and helpful than reviewing the Pythagorean theorem or punctuation marks a thousand times. "A tenth-grader may know how to find the third angle of a triangle, but when it's presented as a word problem, then they're stumped," he explains.
That's where Ultimate TAAS would come in. It's filled with easy-to-read charts, graphs and blurbs that illustrate strategy. Chapter titles such as "How TAAS Math Is Like Watching Baywatch in Nepal" might encourage the average eighth-grader to read on and discover that Johnson may have a point.
A former English teacher at Westbury High School and author of study guides for other state exams, Johnson is familiar with standardized tests. He spent several years in Houston and New York as an SAT tutor. He wrote this book because he wanted to fill a hole in his series, which includes a parents' guide to the third-grade and exit-level TAAS. But he also knows that eighth-grade TAAS tests will someday determine whether a student reaches the ninth grade.
The future may not be too far off for some Texas school districts. DeEtta Culdertson, spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, confirms that in coming years, failing the eighth-grade TAAS could sentence a student to another year of junior high. That's already the case for some school districts. HISD's policy is that eighth-graders who fail the TAAS have to attend summer school, then a committee determines if they're fit to go on to the ninth grade.
Although TEA doesn't endorse any commercial TAAS study guides, it does "support and applaud anything that will help the students do better on the TAAS test and help them learn," Culdertson says. In addition, sample exams are available on the TEA Web site. "We encourage teachers and parents to do what they can to help the students learn the material," she says.
Of course, any kid who would spend his allowance on academic materials probably wouldn't need Johnson's $8 primer in the first place.
But with the emphasis schools place on the exam, parents are prime market targets for the guidebooks. Canetti, a college instructor, has purchased study guides in the past to make sure her son and daughter (now both in high school) do well. Canetti just wishes that the curriculum would focus more on encouraging the students to learn for the sake of knowledge, instead of making school a glorified test preparation.
"These kids don't even know what a TAAS is," Canetti says. "They just know it's bad."