Does Texas Make the Grade?

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ANDRE LAMBERTSON FOR TIME

Third graders in Chestertown, Md., doing a test preparation exercise

Pop quiz. Name and locate the following: Hecla, Monrovia, Manitoba and Orinoco. Now for a math problem: If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs., what is the worth at 50 a bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs. for tare? (Hint: a bushel of wheat is 60 lbs. You're on your own for tare.)

O.K., pencils down. The questions, which percolated through e-mail chains over the summer, are not meant to prepare you for the hot seat on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Rather, they're drawn from an oral exam given to seventh- and eighth-graders in Saline County, Kansas, back in 1895. Students who mastered the five-hour exercise gained admission to high school. And if enough of the kids performed well overall in their studies, their teachers could win a pay raise of 25 a week.

As school reforms go, standardized exams certainly have staying power. But the stakes are a good deal higher on the tests of today. As kids head back to class, they'll embark on what some educators have dubbed the Year of the Test, sitting for state exams that determine everything from high school graduation to school-funding bonuses. Not to mention whether your kindergartner will have nap time (schools in Mobile, Ala., have grabbed that time for test prep), and where you'll buy your next home (real estate agents in Arizona and Virginia now tout high scores in school districts where they have homes for sale).

Both George W. Bush and Al Gore advocate statewide-testing regimes to boost academic standards. It's a message that resonates with voters, who consistently back testing in national polls, and with policy makers, who use tests to gauge the success of other school reforms. Recent studies detailed the soaring test scores among black students who used vouchers to enroll in private schools, and among California immigrants after that state required they be taught only in English. Despite noisy protest rallies in Massachusetts and Virginia last spring, support for high-stakes testing remains strong. In a new poll for the Business Roundtable, 68% of those surveyed say students should pass statewide tests to graduate; 75% think that even elementary schoolers should have to do so to progress on to the next grade. Said Bush last week on a six-state tour promoting his education agenda: "Measurement is the cornerstone to reform."

No place shows both the promise and pitfalls of such measurement more plainly than Texas, where Bush is serving his second term as Governor, and which has one of the oldest and the best studied of the high-stakes exams. First administered in 1990, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) requires that exams in reading, writing, math, science and social studies be taken in alternating years by the state's third- through eighth-graders. High school students must pass reading, writing and math tests. Administrators at some high-scoring schools can earn bonuses of as much as $25,000; low-performing schools risk takeover by the state. Texas officials boast that since 1994, scores have risen by 27%, and more students are taking the SAT and college-level advanced-placement exams. A study released last month by the Rand Corp. ranked Texas first in the U.S. in educating children, when measured by comparing students with similar family backgrounds. Officials also cite the shrinking gap in Texas between the scores of minority students and their white peers. In 1994, 28% of blacks and 34% of Hispanics in 10th grade passed the exam. This year, 67% and 70% did, respectively.

Such was the experience of Leander Middle School, tucked in the hills an hour north of Austin. When the Texas exam was first instituted, only 66% of Leander's students passed the math and reading portions of the test. So the school hired a consultant. The principal also had a revolutionary idea: Drop homeroom and one daily elective, then double the time students spend on math lessons to 90 minutes a day. Three times a year students take — and chart their progress on — exams tougher than the TAAS. And to reduce stress during the real exam week, the school serves granola bars and invites children to come to class in their pajamas. The recipe has paid off: Leander's test scores, including those of its black and Hispanic students, have climbed steadily. And Leander students aren't pining for those lost electives. "We're here to learn," says 13-year-old Brooke Godbey. "We wouldn't benefit more from choir."

Each spring, students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Denton, Texas, trade their normal curriculum for an eight-week crash course known as "TAAS Camp." There, students who ace a day of drills spend the late afternoon playing computer and board games. The stragglers get one-on-one tutoring. The pressure peaks at test time. Says Sarah Telaneus, 11: "All of a sudden your heart starts pounding and you're thinking, I might go blank.'" Not to worry: she and her classmates turned in scores high enough to put their teachers in line for bonuses.

Critics maintain, though, that such gains have come at a hefty price, as classrooms have morphed into pressure cookers and as teachers dumb down creative lessons to teach only to the test. And recent studies allege that the gains in minority scores might be illusory. According to a study published last month by Walt Haney, an education professor at Boston College, growing numbers of the state's minorities — as many as 50% in some schools — are either dropping out or are granted "special education" status, meaning their test scores are not counted toward their school's overall ranking. Says Haney: "Any system leaving that many children behind is tragic."

Some research has shown that intense coaching, like that at Woodrow Wilson, can lead to short-term spikes in test scores, but that later on kids tend to forget much of what they've crammed. "Instead of reading novels, kids are skimming three-paragraph passages for key words," says Linda McNeil, an education professor at Rice University, who this year co-authored a report critical of the Texas exam for Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. Texas' lackluster performance on other national exams bolsters her case. Even as TAAS scores have skyrocketed, those on the SAT have lagged. According to figures released last week by the College Board, the average math SAT score for Texas students increased by just one point over last year, and the verbal score dropped to its lowest level in four years — and to the third-worst spot in the U.S.

The score disparity points to another persistent criticism of the test: that it is simply too easy. Its format, almost entirely multiple choice, is less demanding than many of the newfangled state exams, which require students to show their work on math problems and to answer essay questions. The writing segment of the Texas high school exit exam last spring consisted of just 40 multiple-choice grammar questions and a letter-writing assignment. A 1998 report by Harvard researcher Sandra Stotsky, commissioned by the Tax Research Association, concluded that the reading test declined in complexity in each of the previous three years. State officials deny the test has been watered down and say they're unveiling a more challenging exam in 2004.

More worrisome to educators are the many students who fail the current exam. Despite a B average, it took Amber Montgomery 13 tries — and four extra years of tutoring — before she finally passed the math portion of the achievement test and graduated from Burleson High School, near Fort Worth, at age 22. Says Montgomery: "I was determined to get my diploma."

But many struggling students, whose scores threaten to drag down a school's overall rating, find themselves shunted from the exam room. That apparently was the case at TSU/HISD Laboratory School, a tiny, predominantly African-American school near downtown Houston. After 93% of students passed all parts of the exam in 1998, the school won an "exemplary" state rating. But just one year later, only 62% passed. What happened? In 1998, 39% of students sat out the exam after they were deemed "special ed," a designation generally confined to students with severe learning disabilities. The next year, after a district crackdown, only 24% received the exemption.

According to education professor Haney, more and more Texas minority students have dropped out of high school since the introduction of the state exam, from about 35% in the late 1980s to 40% through most of the 1990s. The Texas Education Agency dismisses Haney's calculations as inflated, and says it has measures in place, such as factoring a school's minority-dropout rate into its overall ranking, to check the problem. But the agency concedes that its dropout figures — about 58,000 blacks and Hispanics since 1996 — may be under the mark by as many as 20,000 students.

Promising to "leave no child behind," Bush pledges to replicate the Texas model on a national scale. While Gore calls for voluntary tests in fourth and eighth grades, Bush would require that states test children every year from third through eighth grades or lose 5% of their federal aid. If a school turns in failing grades three years in a row, its students would receive federal vouchers for tuition at parochial or other private schools. But each state would control the content of its exams.

Many states are already tinkering with the Texas formula. In addition to offering kids multiple tries to pass high-stakes tests, some states weigh the exams alongside other measures of student achievement. In Vermont, students are assessed and promoted on the basis of a portfolio of work that includes a state test, classwork and teacher evaluations.

Even on the 1895 exam, a student who failed could re-take the test a year later. But there's one thing he was sure to know, living in Kansas: tare is the weed normally harvested along with wheat.

With reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington, Chris Coats/Dallas, Desa Philadelphia/New York and Timothy Roche/Austin