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.

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."


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.)

Paula Freeney, Scarborough ninth-grade coordinator, says when ninth-graders drop out it's usually because they're either too old and have become disenfranchised or they've been socially promoted and find themselves overwhelmed. Scarborough hopes an extensive mentoring system and individual education plans will counter this problem.

Freeney and Everson have mixed reactions to TAKS. Freeney says Scarborough kids are well prepared. Everson plans to start Saturday tutorials.

Both say if their students have any reaction to TAKS, it isn't one of fear. Apparently, familiarity does breed a certain amount of contempt, and resentment. "They have been tested to death," Freeney says. "They don't appreciate being guinea pigs," Everson adds.


Debate continues over testing. Robert Stockwell, HISD's chief academic officer, looks at National Assessment of Education Progress data from the U.S. Department of Education and says that some of it shows Texas kids have been doing well.

Abelardo Saavedra, HISD's executive deputy superintendent for school support services, concedes that the Hispanic TAKS scores were not what they wanted. But he cautions that critics shouldn't zero in on bilingual education as being inefficient. Social economics is the biggest correlation to performance, he says. "Poor kids just don't do as well; they aren't as well prepared when they come to school." And a lot of minority kids are poor.

Amstutz looks at the rising TAAS scores and sees no link to college entrance SAT scores, which have remained flat for Texas students.

Alaniz says decisions such as the state has made that every student must know algebra and geometry can be debated, but he's decided educators should focus on helping students understand more of the material.

"Kids can't read in high school. With Lee you have kids who don't speak the language. So there's a lot of problems we're trying to address, but at least we're together, not in isolation and in competition with one another," Alaniz says.

"You know, we've been competing with one another for years. I'm an ex-high school principal, and all we ever did was meet to talk about how your football team beat my football team," Alaniz says. "We didn't share what was working and what was not working. So now we're sharing strategies."

Alaniz knows some principals and teachers will resist change. Four years ago, he himself thought no wholesale change was needed, just a little "tinkering." He doesn't believe that anymore.

"We need to look at this thing differently. Otherwise we're going to keep doing what we're doing, and that's not working. This TAKS test is really going to wake some people up."

Sometimes bad news is really good news. And sometimes desperate people take dramatic leaps, and in the process rediscover both their capacity for genius and common sense in equal measure.

And the answer is: B.
For other test questions, go to the TAKS website and have fun.

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