Wake-Up Call

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

That leaves a lot of kids looking at summer school -- and multitudes of teachers scrambling to prepare for a completely different kind of testing.

"We have created TAAS robots," says Sharon Anson, principal at Scarborough High in northwest Houston. "Now you are going to tell teachers you have to test differently and teach differently because of the state standard. You can't just have a Scantron sheet with true-false and multiple choice.

"With TAKS we won't be able to teach the test."

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.

As far as high schools and TAKS are concerned, Lee High near the Gulfton apartments is going to have one of the toughest goes of it. Lee has 2,100 students; only 150 of them say English is their original language. In fact, Lee students come from 72 countries and speak 40 languages. "Sometimes I can lose a whole country in a day, other times I can gain one," muses Principal Steve Amstutz.

Many new students from places such as Africa, Bosnia, South and Central America are going to be hard-pressed to thrive faced with a social studies test requiring them know about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Continental Congress.

"I expect we're going to take a thumping in social studies and science," Amstutz predicts. "We're going to get beat up pretty badly in the English and reading. Actually, math is where my kids do better. On my SAT scores, the kids here often score 100 to 200 points higher on math than on their language scores. Because math is at least somewhat more of a universal language."

At Lee they are already fully involved in smaller learning communities, and Amstutz has been a driving force behind this trend. "It hit me my first year at Lee when a student was killed in a car accident and nobody knew who he was. I will always remember that that he died kind of in anonymity is certainly a tragedy, but that he lived that way is even worse.

"We can't afford to allow our kids to move through school anonymously, because the reality is that if they are anonymous they don't move through school, they move out, they quit and they drop out. And the no. 1 reason kids give us for dropping out is that 'Nobody knew I was gone.' "

Amstutz and his teachers are trying to work out how they can better prepare their kids for the TAKS. "If all we do is teach to the test, we will numb kids to death. It will kill them." They've talked about how they might need to adjust their courses, maybe doubling U.S. history as their 800 ninth-graders double up now with English.

They'll familiarize students with the test format and test-taking strategies, Amstutz says, and review their curriculum.

A further complication is that by the 11th grade, students will be tested on concepts they learned in the past three grades. Should constant review be built into the new courses? There's already some algebra in geometry, but nothing like that as students move from one social studies class to the next, Amstutz says.

With TAKS testing scheduled for March, April and May, Amstutz's teachers will have five or six months to prepare their students. "These are kids who have walked across Africa and woke up in the morning to see who'd been eaten by lions. Others have seen members of their family beheaded," Amstutz says.

"It's going to show up in the paper that Lee failed its students. Teachers who work incredibly hard will look like failures," Amstutz says. "I would say about this: Hold us accountable for the outcomes. But I need a little more time with my kids, and they're not failures in the meantime."

Scarborough High School at 4141 Costa Rica is about 40 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, 27 percent African-American and 3 percent Asian-American. It has 863 kids, and without a magnet program its enrollment continues to decline. Students come from the Forest West subdivision, the areas around Highway 290 and Tidwell, Pinemont Plaza and parts of Acres Homes.

Classes aren't small; 27 students to one teacher is average, but Scarborough has been innovative in trying to hold on to students.

Involvement in school clubs was minimal. With school out at 3:30 p.m., most kids had to go home to take care of younger brothers and sisters or go to work. The school moved club time to noon, and kids who'd never been part of anything extra before showed up.

Scarborough also put its 275 freshmen in a separate wing with their own principal, Alexandra Everson. Four years ago, Everson asked parents and students what the school could do better. She brought in teachers in small groups to tell them what she had heard. She got a grant that funds four teacher's aides for the ninth grade and a special summer school that keeps the kids with the teachers they already know.

Results? Last year, Scarborough moved its passing rate from 70 percent to 90 percent, Everson says. And the special five-week summer school had a promotion rate of 92 percent.

(Contrast this with the total mess of an effort at Westbury High last year when the principal radically changed teaching teams without first asking parents, students and teachers. After nonstop uproar, HISD finally backed off.)

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