Test Case

Hard Lessons from the TAAS


In August, children across Texas returned to school to find a true terror added to their normal back-to-school jitters. It’s called the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. The TAKS is the latest iteration of the state’s standardized test, the cornerstone of the “Texas Miracle,” an education policy that reportedly helped put the compassion in Compassionate Conservatism. By relentlessly focusing on testing and holding school officials responsible for the resulting scores, this system claims to elevate learning, particularly for previously underserved minority and low-income students.

The new test is reported to be much harder than its predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). There are additional subjects and increased penalties. This year, third-graders who are unable to pass the reading portion of the TAKS will be held back (“retained” in education lingo). Many educators and parents are braced for trouble.

When a student is forced to repeat a grade, studies show the probability that he or she will drop out increases by 50 percent. If left back twice, the likelihood becomes 90 percent. According to the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association, about 35,000 nine-year olds could potentially fail the third grade under TAKS. When fifth and eighth graders are added the number grows to 82,000.

To avoid this scenario, the Texas Education Agency is already softening the blow. It has yet to declare what a passing grade on the new test will be, giving the TEA maximum wiggle room to promote kids. The agency has decided to skip a year in their annual rating of school districts. And for high school students, the TAAS will remain in effect until 2004.

The TEA cannot afford to let too many students fail. It would cost the state hundreds of millions in extra expenses at a time when legislators face an estimated $7-billion budget shortfall. A massive failure could threaten the credibility of the new system just as it becomes established. Imagine tens of thousands of angry parents, each with a failed child, questioning the education revolution underway in Texas. They might discover that the much-hyped “Texas Miracle” has done wonders for many constituencies, but it has abused and defrauded the children trapped inside it.

he greatest champion and beneficiary of educational testing, Texas-style, is George W. Bush, who used the “miracle” myth to claw his way to the White House. His continuing effort to impose the Texas model on the rest of the country gave his first term one of its few legislative victories to date. (See sidebar by Observer intern Emily Pyle.)

Never far behind Bush are his deep-pocketed donors, including the textbook companies that directly benefit from his reforms. Instructional materials are a billion-dollar market offering a consistent 7 percent growth, according to the American Association of Publishers. Recent federal legislation mandating testing should guarantee an even higher growth rate in the future. The National Association of State Boards of Education estimates that if properly funded, Bush’s testing mandate could cost the states an additional $2.7 billion to $7 billion.

Local beneficiaries include teachers and administrators, who are offered bonuses if schools and districts get high ratings. Real estate agents sell houses based on how local schools rank. Teachers’ unions hope to leverage high scores into bigger salaries. Newspapers publish the scores and editorialize in favor of the test.

Texas media and politicians love testing because it’s easy to sell. Who can deny education in Texas was in bad shape before the revolution took hold in the early nineties? Now look at the test scores. They just keep on going up! And they do so without significant investments in education! (Texas is 35th in school spending nationwide per student for the 1999-2000 year.) Eighty-five percent of students reportedly passed last year’s TAAS!

What’s wrong with demanding a minimum competency from all students regardless of ethnicity or race? Minority test scores are up too! A business-like approach to education, one that drills and tests to produce quantifiable results, promises efficiency. And who among us would argue against accountability?

“Ours is a credentialization kind of society,” notes San Antonio School Superintendent Ruben Olivares. “Should I not prepare you to be able to take a test and demonstrate your skills?”

But reports from the frontlines by people who teach in classrooms tell a far different story. Becky Mcadoo, a recently retired 16-year veteran teacher describes her tenure: “It became like an assembly-line education. Nothing mattered but the TAAS.”

The American Educational Research Association, the National Research Council, the American Psychological Association, and the National Academy of Sciences all agree that total focus on a sole indicator with high-stakes consequences for children is unethical. And even the hardest-hearted bottom liner should take notice that the numbers simply don’t compute. The TEA’s claims of success are as slippery as the creative accounting making headlines on business pages.

Under pressure from politicians, businessmen and administrators, school districts consistently inflate scores. There are various ways to game the system. As the TEA cracks down on one scheme, another surfaces. Until recently a popular method was simply to stick a child in a special education section where their TAAS scores won’t be counted. Consequently, from 1994 to 1998, as TAAS scores rose, the number of special education kids in Texas grew by 60 percent.

“There are schools where teachers tell us a principal or a counselor will sometimes apply for a special education designation for a kid, knowing they’re going to be turned down, but in the meantime, the kid won’t have to take the TAAS,” reports Linda McNeil, a professor at Rice University, and a vocal critic of the system.

“I have seen principals encourage parents to have their kids be sick on test days,” affirms Deborah Diffily, who taught kindergarten and first grade for eleven years in Fort Worth before becoming a professor at SMU.

Diffily also saw firsthand how the effort to raise scores led to an intense focus on “the bubble kids.” These were children right on the cusp of passing. Helping the bubble kids pass is statistically significant but not educationally so. By focusing on a small middle cluster, it stiffs those children most at risk and those most inclined to achieve.

“In the months before the test, [teachers] ignore the kids who they know will pass; they ignore the kids who they know won’t pass; and they just concentrate on the kids they can nudge up over the mark,” she says. “In Dallas and Fort Worth, I’ve seen whole classes sent down the hall to watch videos while others were drilled.”

And then of course, there is the straight cheat. These problems seem to be concentrated in large immigrant population centers like Dallas, Houston, and Austin where the pressure is greatest. One such case involves George Bush High School in Fort Bend County. The largely minority school opened in 2001 and almost immediately achieved a stupendous 99 percent passing rate. District officials later discovered that 76 out of 430 sophomores didn’t take the test. Some scores appear to have been voided. Answer sheets for tenth graders were made to look like those for eleventh graders. The school’s TAAS coordinator and the principal resigned after an anonymous tip to the TEA exposed the shenanigans.

In January, the Austin Independent School District pled no contest to 16 counts of tampering with government records. A former deputy superintendent is awaiting trial. Officials were charged with changing student identification numbers to eliminate their tests from the data pool.

Another way the TEA enables schools to artificially inflate scores is through the use of the GED, the high school graduate equivalency exam. For the TEA, the GED is a two-fer. If a poor-performing kid leaves school to take the GED, he doesn’t have to take the TAAS/TAKS and isn’t included in the scores. But, even though the student doesn’t graduate, the TEA does not count the departure as a dropout. Consequently, drop-out rates remained low as GED testing during the mid-1990s rose sharply.

he drop-out rates in Texas are so misleading that the U.S. Department of Education recently declared Texas ineligible for $9 million in federal dropout money. To sustain the miracle myth, the TEA claimed that from 1994 to 1998 dropout rates declined steadily. The state’s numbers for 2000-2001 showed only about a 1 percent dropout rate. About 1.3 percent had allegedly dropped out of school in the previous year.

“According to the state’s rating procedures, if a high school had more than 2 percent annual dropout rate they couldn’t be rated satisfactory,” notes Walt Haney, a Boston College professor who studies the numbers. “So the schools were under a lot of pressure and incentives to report dropout rates of less than 2 percent annually.”

Haney calculated the numbers of white, black, and Hispanic Texas high school graduates and compared them to the freshman class. “The results clearly suggest the possibility that after 1990 schools in Texas have increasingly been retaining students, disproportionately black and Hispanic students, in grade nine in order to make their grade 10 TAAS scores look better,” he says. “During the 1990s, slightly less than 70 percent of students in Texas actually graduated from high school. This implies that about one in three students in Texas in the 1990s dropped out and did not graduate from high school.”

Former Houston school superintendent and current U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige might find the true dropout rates in Houston interesting. “Among the fourteen largest districts in Texas, the Houston Independent School District has the lowest graduation rate at 46.7 percent for 1997-98,” says Haney. “The Dallas graduation rate, 49.5 percent, is almost as bad, and Austin, Aldine and San Antonio all have graduation rates of about 54-55 percent.”

Test proponents, forced to acknowledge the truth of drop-out rates, blame the students. “We have one of the ten hardest populations to educate,” argues Brad Duggan, President and CEO of Just4Kids, an education non-profit that does research for the TEA. “You would expect we would have a higher dropout rate because we have higher challenges.”

San Antonio Superintendent Olivares is hopeful the TEA will stop the fuzzy math. “It’s not as complex as it’s being made to look,” he asserts. “What’s complex is trying to explain to a parent why you only have 70 percent of entering freshmen receiving a diploma when we claim a 2.8 percent dropout rate. That doesn’t square.”

Other educational indicators also contradict high TAAS scores. Since the early 1990s, SAT scores have been flat for Texas compared to the rest of the nation. The state ranks near the bottom in percentage of 19-year-olds enrolled in higher education. The Texas Academic Skills Program (TASP), which tests whether students have the reading, writing, and math skills to do college-level work, reveals why. For members of the high-school class of 1998 who sought to attend college in Texas, and hence had to take the TASP tests, only 31.8 percent of students overall (and just 17.6 percent of black and 23.2 percent of Hispanic students) passed all three tests, according to Haney.

Testing proponents claim that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams bear out the success of the TAAS. Critics of the Texas system admit that students in Texas have shown some improvement on NAEP, but not at levels consistent with the huge apparent gains in the TAAS.

But a true measure of TAAS achievement might best be found in the words of Texas college freshmen. In 2001, when English professors at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi asked first-year composition students to write about the TAAS, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Haney, who reviewed the essays, calculated that 70 percent listed few or no redeeming qualities for the test. These writers are the testing system’s theoretical winners, students who passed and graduated from high school. They describe the test as “meaningless,” “horrible,” and a “waste of time.” (A few called it a “waist of time.” Ironically, the essays are riddled with errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation–mechanics that the TAAS writing exam is supposed to test.)

The most common complaint: too much class time spent on TAAS preparation. The essays describe schools where TAAS practice filled 20 minutes of every class period, or the entire four weeks before the exam, or “basically every moment since elementary school.” The writers recall stopping art class and band practice to work on TAAS problems, and being pulled out of regular classes months before the exam to attend special TAAS study classes.

Touted by teachers as preparing students for the future, the TAAS-centered lessons instead left them unprepared for college. “I passed with flying colors, but nothing my teachers worked on so hard with us works in college,” one wrote.

Some contend the test was not about them at all, but instead about prestige, extra funding, or job security for their teachers and principals. “The principal would come on the intercom and tell us how good we did and what our weak points were, but they would not mention anything else about helping us after that,” one essayist writes.

Together the essays paint a picture of schools where ever-expanding TAAS practice forced out real curriculum and education came second to the manufacture of high test scores. “After the test was finished, their [sic] was nothing left to do in the class, the year was over,” one student writes.

Julie Pennington was a reading specialist teaching sixth grade until she left recently for academia. She has watched as the pressure to succeed on the TAAS test has migrated down to the first grade, where bewildered 6-year-olds who have trouble reading find themselves in special ed classes “because the third-grade TAKS is coming.” She says the test fails to teach young children how to read material, think about it, critique it, see it from different viewpoints, and make it their own in creative ways. In short, it fails to prepare children to think critically.

“Normally you would have a child read a book, discuss it and make inferences,” she says. “The TAAS test reading passages are not complete reading passages, they are sections. The confines of a multiple choice test do not allow for alternative thinking.”

As a teacher she knows how to “teach to the test,” a method geared solely to finding the correct answer. “We are not going to have a big discussion about this passage,” she explains. “We are going to tell the kids, ‘look at the questions first. Look for key phrases in those questions.’ There are different tricks. [Some] questions you can answer without reading the text.”

TAAS writing is by rote, in a five-sentence, five-paragraph essay format. “Writing as it relates to thinking, to language development and fluency, to understanding one’s audience, to enriching one’s vocabulary, to developing ideas, has been replaced by TAAS writing,” concludes Rice’s Linda McNeil and Angela Valenzuela, a UT-Austin professor, in a joint academic paper.

Even the winners lose if all they get is functional literacy. “We have some very bright children that do pass the TAAS and can do TAAS writing,” says Pennington. “But then you give them a blank piece of paper and ask them to write a story without some kind of template, they can’t produce anything.”

Test proponents argue that writing is harder to score because it’s subjective. They also note that a little bit of basic writing and reading instruction is better than nothing at all. Unfortunately, it’s a zero sum game. Instruction does not come free. As districts frantically try to elevate their scores, they divert scarce instructional dollars from important resources. Laboratory supplies, library research
independent projects, science experiments, oral histories, long-term writing assignments, lengthier books, and new books disappear. Limited moneys instead go for test-prep materials and test drills. The result is education-deficient children and wealthy testing companies.

“Under the TAAS system, students are to choose among possible answers that are given to them; they rarely have to think on their own, puzzle out a problem, come up with a possible answer, or articulate an idea,” notes McNeil. “This engenders passivity and a dependent learning style so they fail to develop many essential cognitive skills.”

Contrary to the official line, minorities have suffered more in a TAAS-centered system. “Part of me feels like the test is in place to keep immigrant kids from succeeding,” says a teacher who instructs mostly minority 9th-and 10th-graders in Austin on reading. “I don’t know if that is its thought-out intent, but that’s the effect that it has.”

As Valenzuela points out, the TAAS is divorced from minority children’s experience and culture. It’s written from a dominant Anglo perspective even as Hispanics are poised to become a majority in the state. The TEA translates the English version into Spanish, but changing “Joe” to “José” doesn’t make the test any more comprehensible.

The Austin teacher recalls the following story. “In the past year, I was tutoring two sisters who were recent immigrants from Mexico. They were the kind of kids you want to have in your school. These girls were working so much harder, in two languages, than some of these kids that are already fluent in English.”

One passed, the other didn’t.

“During the test, one of them asked me, ‘Please, I don’t understand the prompt.’ The prompt for the essay was ‘Do you think TV actors make good role models?’ She told me she didn’t know what a role model was. This one idiomatic phrase, and she didn’t pass. And of course, I couldn’t help her. When she didn’t pass, she was in tears. I think that she took that as an indicator that she is not smart. And there’s nothing I can say to her. All that matters is this stupid test.”

Black and Latino leaders have long recognized what the TAAS would do. In 1995, the NAACP challenged the test in federal court and lost. In 1997 MALDEF sued on whether the exit-level TAAS in high school was constitutional. Boston College’s Haney, Rice’s McNeil, and UT’s Valenzuela were all expert witnesses. Three years later, U.S. District Judge Edward Prado ruled that “significant numbers” of minority students are adversely affected by the TAAS but that MALDEF failed to prove that the adverse impacts were greater than the TEA’s positive claims for the system.

For Texas teachers, the “educational industrial complex” makes a bad working situation worse. They already have no right to collective bargaining and are forbidden by law from striking. Control by administrators is total. Teachers who speak out can be charged with insubordination and fired. Then of course, there is the pay. This year Texas ranked 26th nationally for teacher’s pay. The lead union, the Texas Federation of Teachers, has largely endorsed the state’s assembly-line education, coining the cynical slogan, “Our kids will pass the test, if Texas will invest.”

The union maintains its posture as teachers lose more control and authority in their classrooms every year. “It used to be viewed that teachers were professional and they should just be given more…power to make good instructional decisions,” notes academic Kris Sloan, who researched an elementary school in the Houston area. “Now the superintendent says we are not hiring teachers to teach what they feel good about, we are hiring them to teach the [district’s] curriculum.”

Deborah Diffily recalls that her principal required every fourth grade teacher to be teaching the exact same thing at the exact same minute.

“It didn’t matter if half the class had already mastered the material, or some were struggling,” she says. “If it was Tuesday and it was such a time, then every class was learning this.”

Teachers seem to be voting on the system with their feet. Sloan found at his school that the overall percentage of teachers that quit was about three times as high as it had been six years before. Even as Texas faces a teacher deficit of 40,000 instructors, resignation rates for instructors went up from 8.6 percent in 1997 to 11.3 percent in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

No reputable critic of the Texas public education system advocates an end to all testing. Most believe that standardized tests can be a worthwhile indicator of academic progress. They just don’t agree that it should be the only indicator.

“What we could do instead of judging a child based on one test on one day is consider how the child is doing in school — what their grades are, what their attendance is,” argues Carol Holst, who heads a group called Parents United to Reform TAAS Testing. “These testing companies can make mistakes. Or a little kid can have a bad day. That’s too big a decision to rest on one number.”

Teachers like Cory Herndon, who is a high school biology instructor in Memphis, Texas, have seen how using a test as the only measure is unfair. “I had a young lady who was an English-as-a-Second-Language student,” he remembers. “She was one of my brightest students. In the labs I could really see that she had a good understanding of what was going on. She didn’t do well on tests. In that class she probably scored a grade level below where she should have scored. On the EOC [End of Course] exam she ended up failing. She had the information. She just didn’t have the communication skills to show it.”

Superintendent Olivares supports the idea of multiple criteria. “I think there’s a lot of merit to that,” he says. His San Antonio district has just launched an ambitious plan to test kids in every grade every nine weeks so there will be no surprises come TAKS time in the spring. He suggests such test scores could be another criteria.

While students will generally have three attempts to master the TAKS test, parents of grade-schoolers who fail can appeal the decision to a “grade placement committee” comprised of themselves, the principal, and the child’s teacher. Decisions to promote must be unanimous. It is highly unlikely that non-English-speaking, working immigrant parents will take advantage of this. For those who fail the high school test, there is no alternative but to repeat a grade.

In the 2001 legislative session, State Rep. Dora Olivo (D-Fort Bend) sponsored House Bill 2118 and House Bill 2570 calling for multiple criteria to be considered for all grade levels where the test is given. While the bills cleared the House with bipartisan support, they never got past the Senate, where the chairman of the education subcommittee, State Sen. Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo), refused to allow a vote.

“What you would hear was that the word coming down from Washington was don’t make any changes,” recalls Olivo.

Olivo is preparing to reintroduce her bill next session. The bill leaves it to school districts to determine what the multiple criteria should be.

It is here that the conversation breaks down, says Just4Kids’ Brad Duggan, who supports the status quo. “Yes, we would like a lot of other measures; the question is just what are they?” he says. “Across the country there are very few additional measures because they are not objective or because they cannot be collected consistently.”

Another opponent of Olivo’s legislation, remarkably enough, is Rene Lara, legislative director for the Texas Federation of Teachers. “This accountability system has many flaws but we shouldn’t be figuring out ways to undo it,” he argues. “You can’t do good portfolio assessment with [millions of kids]. It would require a lot more funding.”

Those who favor the legislation are troubled by Lara’s position. “[Multiple criteria] is what teachers are supposed to do–pay attention to the child,” says Ana Yañez Correa, policy director for LULAC. “We seem to have more faith in the teachers than their lobbyists do.”

Duggan admits that under the new system, “You do lose some of the spontaneity and fun.” He believes the trade off is worth it, but teachers are not so sure. The business model of education, where “kids” are “products,” might not be very healthy for either children or society.

“It beats a child down,” believes Deborah Diffily. “It takes away a fascination for the subject and a love of learning. It takes away a wonderful curiosity children have. It supports memorization, not real thinking.”

It also produces a class of students who will be perfect employees for a low-wage economy. They will lack training in critical thinking and be unprepared to find knowledge in the information age. It’s not a good recipe for a vibrant democracy.

“What we need to teach children is how to search through material and identify what’s best, what’s reliable,” continues Diffily. “It’s hard to come up with a question that tests critical thinking skills. It’s much easier to come up with a question that tests a fact. But writing the test that way isn’t doing what’s best for our children. It’s doing what’s best for the people writing the test.”

As this year’s students begin school, opponents of Texas-style public education wonder if problems with the implementation of the new TAKS system will awaken people to its larger perils. “I think this year, with the reading test in third grade, it’s going to be especially bad,” contends Becky Mcadoo “I hope it’s bad enough that it will cause them to reconsider.”

Observer intern Emily Pyle contributed to this story.



Schools across the country are scrambling to comply with the requirements of “No Child Left Behind,” the Bush administration’s sweeping education-reform measures passed by Congress in January. “It may cost us twice as much as they’re giving us, and there’s no money to pay for it,” Vermont Governor Howard Dean told The Christian Science Monitor in May. Vermont, which ranks sixth in the nation in education, flirted briefly with refusing to implement the tests–foregoing federal funding–but surrendered in July. So far, despite grumbling, no state is in open revolt against the legislation.

High-stakes testing is at the heart of the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which appropriates just over half the $49 billion granted to education in this year’s federal budget. The legislation requires states to develop and administer standardized tests for every grade between third and eighth, as well as at least one grade between the sophomore and senior years of high school, or forfeit federal Title I money for low-income schools. States are required to test reading and math by 2005 and science by 2007. States may test other areas, like writing or history, at their discretion.

The law requires schools and districts receiving Title I money to show yearly improvement on tests within every ethnic, language, and socioeconomic group. All schools are required to have 100% of students passing the tests within 12 years. Schools that fail to show adequate progress on the test, as the states define it, in every group, are designated as “needing improvement.”

The new rules kick in immediately for states that presently have accountability systems, as Texas does. Already about 8,600 schools across the country have been slapped with the “needs improvement” label for the coming school year. States without accountability systems in place have two years to implement them.

If a school needs improvement for two straight years, parents may opt to transfer their children to schools–or districts, if need be–with higher test scores. Failing schools must use Title I money to pay the transportation costs of sending their students away. After 2003, a school that has failed to show improvement for three years running must use Title I money to pay for tutoring or educational programs that can be received from religious or for-profit agencies. After four years on the “needs improvement” list, schools must restructure by replacing curriculum, appointing outside experts as advisors, extending the school day or year, or even by firing staff considered responsible for the failure. Schools that need improvement for five straight years face even tougher options: submit to takeover by the government, hire a private contractor, or convert to a charter school.

Critics of the legislation point out a gap between the improvements the federal government demands and the funding it provides. While states are allowed to use federal money to reward teachers who produce high scores, no extra dollars are available to the schools who take in kids from failing schools. Meanwhile, no extra federal funding is provided for low-scoring schools–often also the poorest schools–which will be further taxed if they fail and must pick up the costs of hiring private tutors and bussing students out of the area.