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FEATURE Test Case Hard Lessons from the TAAS BY JAKE BERNSTEIN 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 predThere 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 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. The 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 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’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 e ciency. 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-lipe 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 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/30/02