A Test on the Test

A TAAS test test.

December 1998By Comments

THE TEXAS ASSESSMENT OF ACADEMIC SKILLS TEST, for all the good it has done, has always stuck in the craw of some people. The Religious Right opposes the test, as Paul Burka notes in “The Disloyal Opposition”. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has filed suit claiming the test discriminates. And there are other citizens and educators who believe the test is too hard, too easy, or unnecessary. But despite problems with the test such as cheating (by schools and school districts, not students!) to improve rankings, I believe the TAAS is just about right, except for a problem in the high school years. During the coming legislative session, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as well as Texans for Education and the Texas Business and Education Coalition (of which I am a member) will advocate certain amendments to the test designed to improve the testing in high school. Since these issues will soon be before the public, and since misinformation and misunderstanding about the TAAS are common, perhaps it’s time to clear up matters a little with a pop test on the test.

1. Why do we need the TAAS?

The test has given us accurate and specific information about student achievement. Consequently, the TAAS has introduced accountability at long last into the public schools. It can be used to track the performance of school districts, individual schools, and even individual teachers. It’s the best tool we have for improving public schools.

2. Is the TAAS doing any good?

Yes. The proof is that the scores are improving. In the past four years test scores on the TAAS have risen quite dramatically both in reading and in math. Students in the third grade are scoring higher than third graders in the past, students in the fourth grade are scoring higher than fourth graders in the past, and so on. Black students are scoring higher than they used to, as are Hispanic and white students. Texas public schools can be an easy target for critics since it isn’t hard to find all sorts of problems and difficulties. But in specific, necessary, fundamental areas like reading and mathematics, the schools are improving year by year in each grade and for all students. This means that in public education, Texas is on the right course.

3. What’s on the TAAS, why, and who cares?

Every TAAS test covers reading and mathematics. Tests in grades four, eight, and ten have a writing section. The eighth-grade test also includes science and social studies. The test concentrates on reading and mathematics because students must be able to read and compute to be successful in any other class. There is always a temptation to add more to the test, but it’s a temptation that should be resisted. The TAAS should measure what students have learned in the most fundamental subjects—reading, writing, and mathematics. Adding more and more subjects tends to obscure the test’s true purpose and distracts the educational system from concentrating on these core subjects.

4. In the language of the education bureaucracy, the TAAS is a criterion-referenced test. What’s that and is it a good thing, whatever it is?

If a teacher ever gave you a list of words to learn to spell and then gave you a test on those words, that test was a criterion-referenced test—that is, a test covering a body of knowledge a student is supposed to know. The Texas Education Agency has a curriculum for each grade that spells out what a student in that grade should be able to do in reading and mathematics. In each grade, the TAAS tests whether a student has learned what the TEA curriculum says he or she should have learned in the subjects the TAAS tests. A criterion-referenced test must be graded against an absolute standard. For example, a student must answer, say, 70 percent of the questions correctly to pass. Each student’s score is independent of every other student’s score. Everyone can pass, or in the worst of all possible worlds, everyone can fail. The TAAS has to be a criterion-referenced test to see which schools are successfully teaching students the prescribed curriculum and to hold accountable schools that aren’t.

5. In which grades is the TAAS given—three, four, five, six, seven, eight, ten, or all of the above?

The correct answer is all of the above. The TAAS has always been concentrated in the primary grades since that was the place to begin working on the problems in Texas schools.

6. In the language of the education bureaucracy, what does the word “mastery” mean and why is it such a problem?

In any meeting of educators you will hear the word “mastery” in most every sentence. Much of the criticism of the TAAS and of public education comes from not understanding what this word has come to mean. Mastery most often means passing the TAAS, but that is clearly not mastery in the common sense of the word. A student has mastered adding two numbers if the student gets the right answer every time. A student can pass the TAAS by answering only 70 percent of the questions correctly. The TEA knows the difference even if it does not always communicate that to the public. Students need to know their addition perfectly. The passing score for the TAAS is an arbitrary number decided upon more by politics than education.

7. Where is the biggest “black hole” in our statistical knowledge about the achievement level of Texas public school students?

The ninth grade. Many students encounter trouble in the ninth grade, and disturbing numbers of them end up being practically warehoused there, unable to pass the courses to move on. They linger in limbo until they are old enough to drop out, then they do. The highest dropout and failure rate is in grade nine. There is no TAAS given that year, so we don’t know what goes wrong. Furthermore, since those students never progress to the tenth grade, they never take the tenth-grade exit test, and their scores, which one presumes would be low, are not part of the assessment of the school. The ninth grade is a place where our schools may be failing, and we have no way of holding them accountable for it.

8. Why is it more difficult to create useful standardized tests for high school than it is for grade school?

That’s because grade school students all follow pretty much the same curriculum while high school students take different courses. In fact, courses offered in high school vary from district to district.

9. In the language of the educational bureaucracy, some tests are domain-sampling tests. What does this mean and should we have one in Texas?

A domain-sampling test doesn’t test whether you know something or not. It tests how well you can use what you do know, for instance whether you can read a paragraph containing statistics and create a graph from that information. And, yes, we should have one in Texas.

10. Should Texas eliminate the TAAS, continue the TAAS as is, or continue with certain important alterations? Why?

Texas should continue the TAAS. The consistent improvement in every grade and in every race proves that. But there are still ways to improve the testing system.

First, we need to give the TAAS in the ninth grade. The same accountability that the TAAS has introduced into grade schools needs to be introduced into the ninth grade as well so that we can find out why so many students get lost in this grade. If we can learn what causes the problem, that would be the first step in solving it.

Second, we should eliminate the tenth-grade TAAS exit test and replace it with a, sorry for the jargon, domain-sampling test in the eleventh grade. The tenth-grade TAAS is the test that students must pass to graduate from high school. It provides little useful information; it implies to both students and the education system that real education ends; and worst of all, it gives no real indication of how prepared that student is for the demands of life after high school, whether the student’s path leads toward a job, the military, or college. A test concerning the student’s ability to use what he has learned would rectify this problem. By passing, the student would have the confidence that he or she was ready for the future. At the same time, statistical information from the test would help educators not only improve one course at a time but also create a learning experience for young people that would be both academic and show the students that knowledge can be used in ways that are valuable. A preliminary test of this kind should be given in the tenth grade and then a major test in the eleventh. It would take a few years for the effects of this policy to be felt, just as it has with the TAAS. But in time it would help focus and improve high school education by setting goals and standards in a way that is already occurring in our grade schools.

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