Texas Replaces High-Stakes TAKS Test with End-of-Course Tests

The Texas state senate has passed a bill to replace the controversial high-stakes TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test with up to 12 end-of-course tests. Students would have to earn a total of 840 out of 1200 possible points (70% average) on these twelve 100-point tests in order to graduate. Since the tests would be standardized, they would satisfy NCLB’s accountability requirements.

Educators have long complained that the TAKS requires students to recall material they learned years earlier, and reviewing this material cuts into instructional time. The end-of-course assessments will solve this problem, though some are concerned that having twelve tests will be an increased burden on students and instructional time.

The Houston Chronicle points out that, while students don’t have to do well on every test in order to graduate (since they just need to accumulate 840 points), having more tests will provide more granular information about their achievement in sub-strands of a specific course:

On the flip side, end-of-course tests could be more difficult for some students. An exit-level TAKS math test, for example, covers geometry and algebra, so students weak in one area still might be able to pass. But, with end-of-course exams, students would face a test dedicated exclusively to one subject, so they couldn’t hide their weaknesses.

“For a lot of people, taking a math test right after they’ve studied the concept is going to be easier, even if it’s got more questions, but for some it won’t be,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

When Texas required end-of-course exams in the 1990s, passing rates weren’t very high, officials said.

The Houston school board plans to vote today on a resolution expressing general support for end-of-course exams.

“It does not necessarily reduce testing,” Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said. “But it ensures that what is being tested is more comprehensive. What will be tested will be specifically the course that teacher just taught. It’s a much truer measure of what students actually studied.” link

The state senate approved the bill (full text) unanimously, and it now goes to the house, where it is expected to receive a similarly enthusiastic vote.

Heroic Teachers in Dangerous Schools

“Persistently Dangerous” Schools

According to an article in USA today, NCLB’s requirement that states and districts identify “persistently dangerous schools” has missed the mark:

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to identify “persistently dangerous” schools and give parents the option of moving their children to other schools. But it gives so much leeway to states and school districts that only those schools diligent about reporting ever come close to making the list.

States can penalize districts by withholding money if they don’t do enough to improve safety.

What’s evolved, safety experts say, is a system where states have made it very hard for schools to be classified as unsafe and schools can report incidents as they see fit. Fewer than 100 of the nation’s 90,000-plus public schools have ever been slapped with the label since the law took effect in 2002. Although studies indicate school crime has been declining since the 1990s, many experts say schools underreport incidents. link

To further complicate the situation, states define “persistently dangerous” in completely different ways. In some states, the label is tied to the number of weapon-related suspensions and expulsions a school has in a year, while others include assaults and incidents that happen en route to and from school.

The lack of consistent reporting mechanisms, coupled with the pressure to avoid the “persistently dangerous” label, has made the NCLB requirement almost counterproductive. If schools report all serious incidents as they should, they increase their risk of receiving an extremely negative label, while schools that intentionally underreport incidents avoid that risk. Lawmakers are considering changes in NCLB’s reauthorization that would address this issue:

A U.S. Department of Education committee is exploring the issue and may recommend changes when Congress takes up reauthorization of the law this year. So far, members have debated whether to reword the “persistently dangerous” label to something less negative such as “safe schools option” so schools might be more willing to report incidents. link

Heroic Hollywood Teachers

Regardless of whether a school earns the “persistently dangerous” label, it is a challenge to work in a school with a high concentration of students who face difficult life circumstances, such as poverty. Even Hollywood has recognized that this important work is difficult.

Tom Moore, a 10th-grade social studies teacher in the Bronx, argues that movies such as Hilary Swank’s new film “Freedom Writers,” unfairly and consistently portray successful urban teachers as heroes. In his op-ed piece in the New York Times, Moore suggests that

the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell [the protagonist, played by Swank] sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero.

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom. link

Instead, writes Moore, teachers in struggling schools need to be supported so that normal people – not just a mythical cadre of heroes – can be successful with their students:

It’s no surprise that half the teachers in poor urban schools, like Erin Gruwell herself, quit within five years. (Ms. Gruwell now heads a foundation.)

I don’t expect to be thought of as a hero for doing my job. I do expect to be respected, supported, trusted and paid. And while I don’t anticipate that Hollywood will stop producing movies about gold-hearted mavericks who play by their own rules and show the suits how to get the job done, I do hope that these movies will be kept in perspective. link

Wise words from a practitioner who, though some may regard his work as heroic, is simply trying to be a professional and be treated as such.

“Bubble Kids” and Dilemmas of Accountability

PDK has an article entitled “Rationing Education In an Era of Accountability” in this month’s edition, which discusses two dilemmas of high-stakes testing and accountability:

Dilemma 1: Data can be used to improve student achievement, but they can also be used to target some students at the expense of others.

Dilemma 2: It is unfair to hold schools accountable for new students or for subgroups that are too small to yield statistically reliable estimates of a school’s effectiveness; however, the consequence of excluding some students may be to deny them access to scarce educational resources.

Jennifer Booher-Jennings illustrates at length how a sharp focus on getting more students to meet standard leads schools to ignore both students who will certainly pass the test, and those who are very unlikely to pass. Instead, schools are focusing all of their energy on the “bubble kids,” students who are on the verge of passing. Because efforts directed at “bubble kids” have the highest payoff in pass rates, schools are ignoring the value in helping low-achieving students make progress as well as helping above-standard students strive for even greater heights. In many schools, Booher-Jennings says, students of color and students in special education don’t even have a chance to become “bubble kids,” because there aren’t enough of them to count for AYP.

There appears to be no accountability system for this type of discriminatory behavior. If schools raise their test scores, they are praised, with little inquiry into the side-effects of those score gains. In fact, high-achieving students could lose ground, and low-achieving students could learn nothing at all, and the school would still be praised for its gains as long as more bubble kids met standard.

Conversely, there is a third dilemma introduced if we focus on average scores instead of pass rates: Schools may choose to focus on further raising the achievement of high-achieving students, since taking a student from an 85 to a 95 may be easier than taking a student from a 25 to a 35. Susan Roberta Katz illutrates the consequences of this approach, popular before NCLB, in “Teaching in Tensions: Latino Immigrant Youth, Their Teachers, and the Structures of Schooling.”

What is missing from this discussion is ethics. What is the mission of the school, and how can it be pursued with integrity? How does a focus on test scores interfere with our ability to ethically and equitably serve all students? Why are administrators pressured to raise scores, regardless of how this pressure affects students?

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