The Chronicle today has a disturbing story about the results on 8th and 10th grade TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowlege and Skills) tests. The result is that Texas students are improving. Why is this a disturbing result? Because critics are charging that the test was dumbed down to make it easier to pass. Why was it dumbed down? To make the results look better in an election year–or at least that is the suspicion of some educators. From the Chronicle story (italics are direct quotes from the story; other typography includes paraphrasing): Texas schoolchildren generally performed better on the all-important TAKS test this year, but some superintendents, state lawmakers and statisticians are casting doubt on the gains. That’s because the Texas Education Agency required students to answer fewer questions correctly to pass most sections of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. In some cases, students could pass by getting fewer than half of the items right — an unusually low standard, according to several education researchers. . . . . The biggest change involved the social studies test for students in grades 8 and 10. This year, for example, eighth-graders had to answer correctly 21 of 48 questions — or 44 percent. Last year, the passing standard was 25 questions, or 52 percent. TEA’s explanation: The questions, for the most part, were harder this year, so they followed a standard statistical process and lowered the number of items students needed to get correct. “We didn’t do anything differently than previous years,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe. “It wouldn’t be fair to kids if this test wasn’t at the same difficulty level from year to year.” That’s their story, but some folks quoted in the story are not buying it: The biggest change involved the social studies test for students in grades 8 and 10. This year, for example, eighth-graders had to answer correctly 21 of 48 questions — or 44 percent. Last year, the passing standard was 25 questions, or 52 percent. State Rep. Scott Hochberg, vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, criticized the lower standard. “How can a score of less than 50 percent be passing on a test that’s supposed to assure us that students know the curriculum?” the Houston Democrat said. Bob Linn, a past president of the American Educational Research Association, expressed similar concerns about setting a 44-percent passing standard on a multiple-choice test. Linn, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, told the Chronicle, “If I were designing the test, I would like to have some questions that were not quite as challenging so the students have a higher likelihood of getting them right.” Alief school board member Sarah Winkler also expressed concern about the process. Winkler, who is president of the Texas Association of School Bards, said officials in her district also were applauding TAKS gains, but she expressed doubt after learning the passing bar was lowered for most grade levels and subjects. She added that she was “shocked” to find out Monday that the TEA doesn’t set the passing bar — called the cut score — until after students take the TAKS. I recognize that a lot goes into writing these tests and determining whether they are designed to provide an accurate assessment of student knowledge. The Chronicle story is not a smoking gun, but it does raise a serious issue about whether the parameters of the test were jimmied in an election year to make student performance look better than it really was.