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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 06/16/2010

The story behind rise in Texas test scores

By Valerie Strauss

Good news: Texas schoolchildren performed better on the 2010 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills this year than they did last, according to preliminary results released this month.

Bad news: It turns out that students could pass the test answering fewer questions correctly than in 2009.

For those who want the world to run by the results of standardized tests, the Houston Chronicle’s story behind the story of the gains on the TAKS should be a cautionary lesson in relying too much on test scores and reform driven by “data.” Numbers can lie, and often do, in any field, including education; just ask those folks who believed Bernard Madoff’s investment numbers.

The Chronicle’s story says that the Texas Education Agency changed the rules on the annual test. Students needed to answer fewer questions correctly on most sections, and, in some cases could pass by answering fewer than half of the questions.

Texas education officials told the Chronicle that the questions that were asked were actually harder, so the test was no less difficult than in the past.


These are the grades and subjects that are annually tested in Texas public schools:
*Grades 3-9 reading
*Grades 3-10 and exit-level mathematics
*Grades 4 and 7 writing
*Grade 10 and exit-level English language arts (ELA)
*Grades 5, 8, 10 and exit-level science
*Grades 8, 10 and exit-level social studies

According to the agency’s Web site, 82 percent of juniors passed all tests taken, compared with 75 percent in 2009, and of those who didn’t pass all exams this year, most failed only one test.

Among this year’s junior class, 98 percent passed the social studies test, 93 passed the English language arts test, 91 percent passed the science test and 89 passed the math test. Students made particularly strong gains in mathematics and science over 2009 performance levels: Passing rates represent gains of one point in social studies, one point in English, six points in science and eight points in mathematics over 2009 passing levels.

Younger students also did well. Sophomores: The passing rates were 90 percent on English language arts, 74 percent on mathematics, 93 percent on social studies and 74 percent on science. Freshmen: The passing rates were 92 percent on the reading test and 70 percent on the math test. And on and on; down through the grades; in fifth grade, 85 percent of the students passed reading on the first try and 86 percent passed the math test on the first try. Eighty-eight percent of students passed the science test.

With these numbers, you’d think Texas would have one of the country’s most highly touted school systems. It doesn't.

Texas students ranked 34th among 52 states and jurisdictions on test results released earlier this year on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years around the country that is sometimes called the “nation’s report card.”

So much for "data."

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 16, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests  | Tags:  TAKS, TAKS results, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, high-stakes testing and Texas, standardized test results, standardized tests  
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According to Valerie, tests are bad because people cheat. Teachers cheat. Students cheat. States cheat. So we shouldn't have tests.

Surely there's a five year old around somewhere, Valerie, who could explain to you that we could put processes in place to eliminate cheating?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | June 16, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

where did Valerie say there should be no tests?

Posted by: efavorite | June 16, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

where did Valerie say there should be no tests?

Posted by: efavorite | June 16, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

where did Valerie say there should be no tests?

Posted by: efavorite | June 16, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Valerie didn't say they cheated. She said that they lowered their standards for passing and then claimed that more students had passed. What isn't clear is how much the requirements were lowered.

I am not sure a process to eliminate cheating would work. This is not the first time that Texas has played with the numbers. If we want everything to hinge on test scores people will only want high scoring students in their schools.

In fairness to Valerie, she does quote a standardized test the NAEP. I don't think Valerie is against standardized testing as a tool to help teachers and students. She is against "high stakes" testing.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 16, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Ok, I read the article in the Houston Chronicle. Valerie provides the link above. It sounds like the testing company, Pearson, routinely "field tests" the tests before giving them. This year's tests were too hard, so passing was lowered to 44-78 percent depending on the test. What we still don't know is if the test was timed. Sometimes on timed tests the students usually don't finish all the questions, and they still pass. There are portions of the Maryland State Assessment that are that way as well.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 16, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

"Surely there's a five year old around somewhere, Valerie, who could explain to you that we could put processes in place to eliminate cheating?"

Would you explain this better? Massive cheating goes on all throughout society and often doesn't get caught in spite of processes to prevent it.

Posted by: aby1 | June 16, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I'm a high school English teacher in Texas and I'm sincerely happy that our low standards are receiving national attention in the press. I have been increasingly dismayed each year by how easy the English test is for the HS juniors I teach. This year juniors could pass with a 58%, which I find very troubling, especially considering the low level of the questions and reading passages. I had numerous students this year that read and write well below grade level. I loved them and worked as hard as I could to help them. However, do I feel their passing score on the TAKS test demonstrates that they are ready for English IV or that they have mastered the required skills and objectives for a high school junior? No. Absolutely no. What's crazy to me is that the Texas Education Agency doesn't set the passing standard until AFTER students have taken the test. They want the results to go up each year....and so they do--whether I've done my job or not. Another element Valerie does not address is the Texas Projection Measure--a device used to give students a passing score even if they fail the test if it's "projected" that the student will pass the following year. We have to love kids enough to set high expectations, and then we must brave enough to look at the truth of the results.

Posted by: ostrichella | June 17, 2010 7:43 PM | Report abuse

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