Wake-Up Call

The TAKS field test results were so gawd-awful they may become a catalyst for good

Only 2 percent of fifth-grade students who take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills science test in Spanish will pass it. Ninety-eight percent will fail.

There's better news in third-grade reading in English. Seventy-seven percent would pass there. Still, 23 percent would fail, and if they don't pass on their second and third tries, they will not be promoted to fourth grade.

In high school, 37 percent of all students taking the 11th-grade reading test would pass, which means 63 percent of all students would fail this portion of what will become the high school exit test. In 11th-grade science, 54 percent of all students would fail -- 75 percent of the African-Americans and 67 percent of the Hispanics.

If Scarborough hadn't moved the chess club to midday, Johnny Jones (left), playing chess with Kirk Runyon, says he never could have joined because he works after school.
Margaret Downing
If Scarborough hadn't moved the chess club to midday, Johnny Jones (left), playing chess with Kirk Runyon, says he never could have joined because he works after school.
Click here for a sample question from the TAKS.
Taken from TAKS test
Click here for a sample question from the TAKS.

These projections, compiled by the state based on random field testing last spring, are dismal and dispiriting. According to the scores, huge numbers of these kids don't know much of anything in several areas. Hispanic scores were among the worst, even for kids who took the test in Spanish at the youngest grades -- where bilingual education was supposed to keep them at grade level in other subjects while they caught up in English.

While educators say they expected scores to drop when Texas switched its statewide testing from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, they clearly didn't expect this crash and burn. Some excuses have already been proffered, such as students didn't take the test seriously because they knew it wouldn't count. And historically field test scores for a new exam are lower than the actual testing. Dress it up anyway you like, but it still doesn't look pretty, and most HISD officials aren't trying to paint it otherwise.

"They're not very nice to look at," agrees Armando Alaniz, the newly arrived HISD assistant superintendent for improvement and accountability.

The state has gone from a minimal skills test -- though for years its proponents denied that TAAS was minimal anything -- to the more comprehensive TAKS, requiring higher-level thinking skills, longer essays and knowledge of a wider range of material. TAKS is set by the state -- not an individual teacher customizing her own final exam to match the material she was able to cover during the year. Science and social studies will be added to the 11th-grade exit test for the first time.

"Even with us starting this a year ago, I still think it's going to be hard, especially for inner-city minority or kids with a second language. I don't know how many of the adults who have a degree could pass this test," says Alaniz. He left his longtime post as principal of Reagan High School at Superintendent Kaye Stripling's urging to help improve education across the board at the district's 24 comprehensive high schools.

It may not matter how many stickers and lollipops the lower-grade teachers hand out; it may not matter how much test-taking "strategies" are stressed. A student can learn how to tackle analogies, but if he doesn't have the vocabulary to understand all the words in the problems, he'll be lost.

All of which is prompting a heightened interest in re-examining just what works and what should be jettisoned in education in HISD.

It seems that nowhere are there going to be more significant changes than at high school. "A lot of the improvement has been concentrated in the early grades, elementary up through middle school. High school…that's where you're probably going to see the greatest need for intervention, doing something different," says Robert Stockwell, HISD's chief academic officer.

Alaniz echoes that. "High schools haven't changed one iota since they were created. Teachers still teach the same way. We still deal with kids the same way, and we shuffled them in and we shuffled them out, and if they make it great, if not, so be it.

"We expected 20 to 25 percent to fail. We can no longer have a high school like that," Alaniz says.

While the latest research concludes that high schools of no more than 200 kids do best, Houston, like many other large urban districts, is faced with somehow retrofitting its approach to the mega-high schools. Some are adopting a school-within-a-school concept or personalized education plans geared to each student's abilities. And more tutorials are planned.

Much of this is being tackled in HISD in a high school reform initiative funded with a Schools for New Society grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Alaniz says. This is a joint project with the Houston Annenberg Challenge.

After the field test scores were unveiled, some critics argued the state should hold off on implementation, but state board of education members stood somewhat firm in a 12-3 vote earlier this month. They elected to start the testing this year, albeit with lower standards, and over the next two years increase the number of questions that must be answered correctly.

Students who are tenth-graders this year will be the first ones to have to pass the 11th-grade exit test when they take it as juniors next year.

Third-graders are the only ones who will have to pass the reading portion this year; they will have to answer 20 of 36 questions correctly. According to the Texas Education Agency, projections showed that by lowering the standard to this level, they expect 85 percent of the 238,000 third-grade students to pass or 42,000 to fail. This compares to 87 percent of Texas third-graders who passed the TAAS reading exam this spring.

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