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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

TAKS Season

It used to be that a new year would roll around and kids would be completely left out of one of the major topics of conversation: tax season. Adults would lament the fact they had to prepare their returns and voice great fears about the looming damage to their bank accounts. Children had to sit idly by without anything to lend to the discussion. No longer. Now young people, especially public school students, have their own TAKS season and, while spelled differently, it carries the same dread and anxiety. And well it should, not only for the students who must take the test but also for the adults who must live in the world it's creating.

It's time for all of us who once joined in the chorus and insisted that standardized test taking was the only way to ensure accountability to finally admit that the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test is a miserable failure. It has gutted the curriculum in public schools all across Texas and has contributed to us having the highest dropout rate in the entire country. Hopefully now, as the TAKS tutorial sessions begin along with a new session of the Legislature, public school parents will start weighing in like never before. There are encouraging signs of change on the horizon. Both Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Senator Florence Shapiro, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, have signaled that they might have heard the loud Democratic message from the last election and have indicated a desire to do away with the high stakes nature of the testing. And that's precisely what needs to change.

There is nothing wrong with standardized tests: they've been around forever and they will continue to be needed to provide a snapshot of how students are doing when compared to their peers. But basing a decision as to whether a child will move forward in school, how a school will be ranked and now, how much merit pay a teacher will receive, all on the outcome of one single test, is absolutely absurd.

The high stakes on the outcome are what have caused such an inordinate amount of time to be dedicated to TAKS preparation. During my campaign for governor, I asked a class of high school students how much of their time was spent on the TAKS test and they looked at me like I was from another planet. Finally, one of the students spoke up and said, "All of our time is spent on the TAKS test." The principal of the school heard the student and agreed, "These are the children of TAKS. Their entire school careers have revolved around the taking of that test." Then he wondered to me privately whether students these days are actually learning anything.

In the book, "Leaving Children Behind," Linda McSpadden McNeil, the co-director of the Center for Education at Rice University, suggests the principal's worries are well justified and are great cause for alarm. She writes: "The test scores are presumed to be - or advertised to be - indicators of learning. But in fact, to date, there have been no studies that show that a score on a state-mandated, standardized test is an accurate, or even valid, measure of whether a child has learned, or what he or she has learned."

What is equally alarming is the impact this so called accountability system has on the dropout rate. Texas has the highest dropout rate in the entire country and obviously the TAKS test is not solely responsible. But to pretend it hasn't had a significant impact is ludicrous. McNeil says that the Texas system "succeeds - that is, produces positive indicators - only when it loses a significant number of children. By far, the majority of those losses are among poor, Spanish-language-dominant, and other Latino children, with equally significant losses incurred by African American children as well." McNeil explains that if large numbers of students likely to fail the test are forced out of the system, test scores will naturally go up.

However, we cannot continue to lose generations of young people in Texas if we want to get our state out of the ditch we find ourselves in and be a powerhouse in the future. Educational opportunity leads to economic opportunity and if an integral part of our educational system is forcing young people out, it's time for change.

Sadly, instead of working toward that change, some want to put their heads in the sand and simply pretend that everything is okay. They find improved TAKS test statistics in this area or that and suggest that tells the whole tale. Wrong. If the TAKS test really were an accurate barometer, it would stand to reason that we would be seeing the same level of improvement on other standardized tests in Texas. We have not, not on the Stanford Exam and certainly not on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) where we show some of the lowest scores in the country.

In the Houston Independent School District, instead of addressing the problem, officials have decided to take the high stakes nature of the TAKS test and place it on steroids, tying 14 million dollars worth of teacher bonus pay to improved test scores. The first round of bonuses was recently doled out and when teachers saw the bizarre and questionable way in which the bonuses were determined - both in terms of who got them and how much - many were justifiably livid.

It is time for Texas public school parents to start getting angry, too. All of us want accountability in our school system and for a long time, we all believed the only way to ensure that accountability was through high stakes standardized testing. In today's political system, if you say something loud enough and long enough, many will just end up accepting it as the gospel truth. When it comes to the TAKS test, it's time for such mindless acceptance to end. True facts and statistics paint a very different picture of what our over-reliance on that one test is doing to our educational system and, as a direct result, to our state. It's time for people to demand that public schools be more than test-taking factories. It's time to make sure our schools are preparing young people for a lifetime of learning. That's what they're going to need if they're going to be in a position to compete in today's global economy. And if we were accomplishing that, then we would have a real system of accountability.

Thank you again Chris

I remember taking a test while living in Denver Colorado which was strictly no-pressure.

Called, Al-pass (nice moniker,huh!) it really did measure what I and other elementary school students were learning, and did not penalize us or the teachers for our 'wrong' answers.

Creating a safe and no-pressure learning environment, that standardized test is remembered FONDLY today.

How many other people can remember their school standardized testing programs fondy? I am not kidding here!

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