Casualties of War

Parents who bought into the TAKS hype dealt blow at HISD meeting.

In the end, the hard work and Saturday classes, the pizza parties and pep rallies, the incredible amount of time spent on drill and kill, all the sacrifices and the hoopla just weren't enough.

Discounting years of their own press releases touting the number of schools that are "recognized" and "exemplary," Houston Independent School District trustees took turns at their board meeting last Thursday night telling parents and teachers that the state tests they'd staked their kids' futures on weren't worth much more than a bucket of warm spit.

"The TAKS test means less than it ever did," trustee Harvin Moore said. "It does represent something. Unfortunately it represents less and less with each passing year. And we're fooling our schools, we're fooling our teachers and we're fooling our public if we continue to focus solely on the TAKS test."

Parents and teachers from Isaacs and Scarborough elementaries came to argue that their schools shouldn't be placed among the district's Apollo 20 turnaround project for low-performing schools because, after all, they were "recognized" by the Texas Education Agency in large part because of their performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

A mistake had been made, the Reverend Howard Sims Sr. told trustees. "Isaacs has been recognized for years, and now the district says we're below standards. There are plenty of schools below Isaacs in math and reading," he said. He and other speakers had done their homework; 44 schools had scored below Isaacs in reading and 40 in math. If all the TAKS scores were combined, 20 schools scored below Isaacs.

They were then told by the board in terms both kind and harsh — depending on whether it was trustee Harvin Moore and board president Paula Harris (kinder and gentler) or Larry Marshall (channeling his inner Old Testament prophet persona) — that being "recognized" by TEA doesn't really mean your school is doing a good job academically and that several of their test scores on the national Stanford standardized tests were way too low.

"TAKS is not a competitive test. You've been misled and misdirected if you think being recognized is okay. Recognized is not okay. TAKS has no rigor," Marshall told the room before joining his colleagues in a series of votes that finally resulted in a 5-4 decision to spend $1.6 million to expand Apollo, its culture and its tutors to 11 elementaries next fall.

During the hours-long debate, complete with three separate votes, some bitter exchanges took place — unusual for a board known for presenting a united front. Trustee Carol Galloway complained they were rushing things and tried at one point to stop Superintendent Terry Grier from talking. Immediate past board president Greg Meyers told fellow trustees they had no business tinkering with the number or names of the schools selected for the program, and if they did so he would hold his fellow board members accountable, not the administration. Trustee Larry Marshall, arguing against any delay in Apollo expansion, said "I urge this board to maintain its sanity."

Isaacs PTO President Maria Sustaita said she was at a loss to explain the board's decision to the parents of students at the school. "We are not failing nor low-performing," she insisted, citing several other test scores from Isaacs students, including a 94 percent passing rate and a 41 percent "commended" rate on the third-grade Spanish-language version of the math test. She said Isaacs parents were confused by why the district wanted their school in Apollo. They thought they were doing so well.

Reached the next day, Sustaita, who also works at the school, said she was developing a map for parents to tell them how to get to the trustees at HISD headquarters. She's not going to explain what happened because she can't, she said. "Let them figure it out once all the parents pile up over there."

During the discussion Thursday night, Grier appeared to be genuinely at a loss to understand why a school wouldn't want Apollo's extra tutoring help. "This is not a way to stigmatize schools; this is a way to offer extra help. If I could be king for a day, we would want to do this in all of our schools."

Sustaita's response? "Tutorials are good. We already have tutorials. We already have Saturday camp. We keep students after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays." She pointed to passage rates of "84, 85, 83 percent. If those scores are bad, what the hell is good?" she asked. "And why all of a sudden do you want to go with the Stanford?"

Well, the HISD trustees want to go with other tests because — they're right — the TAKS test isn't particularly rigorous. A passing score is little guarantee that a student is going to go on to succeed in the next grade, let alone college. There's still a sizable gap between national scores and the TAKS, and a similar chasm between being recognized by the state and having too many kids reading below grade level in the third grade.

But while they've been re-educating themselves on what's more important, the trustees and HISD administration left the community behind.

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9 comments
Dr. Fill
Dr. Fill

I told my youngest kid the other day, TAKS and benchmark tests are designed for morons...hmm, I mean the slowest kids in her class. She has to do many times better than the passing grade to be considered a smart kid. Hopefully she gets the point.

Sarah
Sarah

While I feel bad for the schools being caught in the district's growing pains, I think it is wonderful news that the TAKS test is losing its power. The Stanford 9 is such a better assessment (as I recall)... and harder to "teach to." For the 2 years I taught in HISD during the ascent of NCLB (2001-2003), I was explicitly instructed to spend February-April "teaching TAKS..." If I recall correctly, my principal at the time told me that if the Northeast district superintendent or other sub-district administrators were to come to my classroom during that time, we had better be explicitly be teaching TAKS objectives.

Yet, as a thinking adult, I realized that even though my students did well on that exam, the Stanford was a better assessment of what they knew and how they were doing (and how I was doing).

I don't know the answer, but I'm pretty sure it's not home schooling or standardized tests. And I'm pretty sure it involves paying teachers more so that talented, intelligent people choose to teach rather than leave for more lucrative careers. I'm very glad that nurses make alot of money (aprox $70,000/year, I think), but teachers should make at least as much as nurses, if not more.

UziGal
UziGal

Home schooled kids who do well on standard tests (SAT and advanced subject matter SAT's such as chemistry) are aggressively recruited by elite universities.

sickofteachingtothetest
sickofteachingtothetest

Parents- it's time for a national Keep Your Kids Home on Test Day movement. It would invalidate all those crappy statistics and then the millions of dollars wasted on Pearson, TEA administration/test salaries, etc. could be redirected to more valuable education projects.

Houston citizen
Houston citizen

This is the laziest piece of reporting I have ever seen about education. Comparing the TAKS and Stanford is like comparing apples and oranges. You should have made that clear to your readers.

Ms. Downing, go on to the TEA website and look at the released TAKS tests for the last 9 years. Take them. Do you think they are increasing or decreasing in rigor? (Let me give you a hint, they are increasing). Ask the surbuban school districts if they administer the Stanford test. (When they say no, ask why). In short, do your job. This is sloppy reporting.

Follow the money. Find out how much TEA pays Pearson to help compose the TAKS (and now the STAAR) tests. Find out how many salaries in TEA are directly tied to testing. Find out how much money HISD pays ETS for the Stanford test. Find out how many millions HISD spends on test prep books, software and consultants throughout the year.

Look for ties or kickbacks from testing companies to school boards around the state and nation. Ask how Jeb Bush is related to this story. I am just a regular teacher and I see all these dots. I don't understand why no media person has figured it out yet.

A Teacher
A Teacher

So if TAKS tests don't matter so much I guess I will stop preparing my students for it and will focus all of my attention on the Stanford. The school rating will go down but apparently the HISD Trustees don't care...

nativetexan
nativetexan

Can you spell H-O-M-E-S-C-H-O-O-L?And public educators have the nerve to criticize those who teach their own. Ya, right.

ash
ash

I remember taking the TAAS tests and the TAKS test came out when I was in high school. All the teachers ever did was teach the test. Thats what we focused on all year, that stupid test. I took the Stanford test to and it was much harder. I think they should do away with it and focus on what students really need to be taught. I'll give you a hint, *it's not the TAKS*

idjit
idjit

No Child Left Behind was conceived by the same people who deny evolution, and thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq. It is a vast Fantasyland inhabited by charlatans.

 
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