IN NOVEMBER WE PUBLISHED A RANKING of 3,172 public grade schools in Texas, giving each school one of five grades, from four stars (the best) to no stars (the worst). This article provoked an unusual amount of mail. Some of the letters were barely restrained victory whoops from people connected with high-ranking schools. However, unsurprisingly, our mail proved that not everyone agreed with our rankings.
Most of the disagreements criticized our reliance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). This test is currently given each spring to students in grades three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and ten. Our ranking awarded stars based on a formula that compared an elementary school’s TAAS scores with those from other elementary schools across the state that had a similar percentage of students from poor households. Few complained about our grouping schools by economic status, but many complained about the TAAS, and their letters were filled with emotion. One of the many impassioned letters came from Donna Trevino, a teacher from Wichita Falls, who wrote, “It’s time we admit that the TAAS is not performing the function it was meant to perform and start to wake up to the fact that the TAAS, an assessment tool for rating teachers, puts undue pressure on our children, who have ‘Ace the TAAS’ beaten into their heads a full eight months of the year, who are bribed with gifts of candy, toys, and field trips to perform well on the test, and who are being taught test-taking skills before or even instead of anything of real value.”
David Cross was more analytical, as befits the chair of the psychology department at Texas Christian University: “First, the tests do nothing for capable students (my children routinely pass all or nearly all of the items—what’s the use?). Second, the tests are representative of nothing children will do when they finish school and, as a result, have no predictive validity. Third, as a parent, I do not know who makes up this test, for what purpose, or using what criteria. Its validity is unknown, yet it is the driving force for education in my children’s schools.”
But the letter that best expressed the most common criticism of the TAAS came from Lea Turner, a teacher in Hico. She wrote, “1. Some schools have cut everything from the curriculum except the TAAS. They no longer teach social studies, science, art, etc. There is no ‘well-rounded’ education. 2. Much time is wasted teaching test-taking skills to third and fourth graders that could be better spent teaching things they really need to know. 3. So much pressure is put on teachers to get their students to pass the TAAS that illegal techniques of helping the students are rampant. . . . As a result, our students look smarter on paper but have less knowledge to show for the time spent in the classroom.”
A selection of other letters is in Roar of the Crowd on page 16. Usually we reply to letters there, but in this case the criticisms were so consistent and the issues they raised so important that it seemed best to break with the usual order of things and answer some of them here. Our rankings depend entirely on the TAAS. If it is critically flawed, then the rankings are critically flawed as well. The main complaints seem to be these three:
Too many schools are teaching only what is on the TAAS to the exclusion of everything else. For all the criticism, often justified, that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) must endure, it has developed a reasonable curriculum for the state’s public schools. It emphasizes reading, writing, and mathematics. These subjects are broken down into a multitude of specific skills, and then each skill is designated to be taught in a certain grade—multiplication at one point, manipulating fractions at another. Each spring, as the end of the school year nears, the TAAS simply determines whether the students have learned the reading, writing, and problem-solving skills they were supposed to learn in that grade that year.
What can appear to be “teaching to the test,” as critics call it, may simply be teaching the curriculum mandated by the TEA. I believe the best way to answer this criticism is to stand it on its head, to say that one of the most beneficial results of the TAAS is the discipline it has imposed on the subjects taught in the classroom. At a district meeting, one teacher of an early grade proudly announced that she had spent much of the past three weeks drilling on Roman numerals. Now, Roman numerals are a good thing to know, but they are not tested on the TAAS because, quaint as they may be, Roman numerals have little or no utility in the modern world. Other knowledge and other skills are more important according to the TEA, the TAAS, and I believe, the great majority of parents. This teacher’s students would have been better served had she done exactly what the critics say and taught to the test.
Certainly, there are important things in life and in school that are not on the test. There’s music; there’s art; there’s that old favorite from everyone’s school days, “getting along with others.” In a normal class the teacher should spend from two thirds to three fourths of class time on the TEA curriculum, so there is time for students to learn much else. But of all the important lessons a student can learn, surely the subjects on the test—reading, writing, and arithmetic—are the most important and should command the better part of each school day.
The TAAS doesn’t test what students really know or what they need to know. I have some sympathy for David Cross, who wonders what exactly is on this test that determines so much of his children’s education. The tests are closely guarded for obvious reasons. But the subjects the test covers are no secret; they’re all in the public, mandated TEA