Kristina Meyer

Public Policy
Professor Balkema
December 10, 2001
WITH NUMBER TWO PENCILS IN HAND
Each year students across the nation are forced into rooms where no talking
is allowed. They come equipped with number two pencils and a year’s
preparation. They are there to take a standardized test. In Texas this
test is called the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Many students walk
into this test knowing that they will pass and knowing that their time
would be better spent in thousands of different areas. Other students come
in highly anxious, knowing that not passing the test means that they will
not graduate. As they walk in everyone discusses the stupidity of the
test, and the desire to be anywhere but there. These discussions start as
soon as students start taking these tests, in the first grade. As the
students get older, the conversations become more complicated, analyzing
all of the problems behind the test: the test’s low caliber of difficulty,
the high-stakes of the test, and teaching just to pass the test.


Many states throughout the United States have installed a nationally
recognized test to give to their students. These tests allow students
across many different states to be compared. Originally Texas did use one
of these nationally recognized tests. However, in 1980, they stopped using
such tests and began to create a test of their own. This test slowly
evolved into the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which was adopted in
1990. The idea behind this test was to specifically measure the elements
that the Texas Education Code finds essential in each grade level. The
test is retaken annually in grades three through eight, and an exit level
test is given in the tenth grade. Students must pass the tenth grade test
before graduation; therefore, they retake it every year until they pass it.

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(1997, Judson)
The State Board of Education (SBOE) oversees all of the procedures for the
creation of the test, along with the rest of the Texas educational system.

The governor appoints the commissioner for this board and the board
members, who are representatives of fifteen areas of the state, are elected
among the rest of the board. Everything that happens in the Texas
education world must go through these people first. The board members head
committees on planning, instruction and school finance. However, the SBOE
must report back to the state government. The state’s senate has an
education committee. This committee passes laws and allocates money to
pass onto the SBOE. The chairman of this committee is Senator Teel Bivens
(Republican), from Amarillo. He is currently in his third session as
chairman of this committee. He has done many wonderful things for the
education world, but seems to have stayed away from the standardized tests
of the state. While new teacher recruitment and making higher education
more accessible have been large on the committee’s agenda; standardized
tests do not appear. This seems slightly ironic, as students cannot be
fully prepared for a higher education as the TAAS test remains in its
current condition.


Various committees of the Texas Education Agency, over seen by the SBOE,
develop the test. Since the test’s implementation almost seven thousand
classroom teachers, curriculum specialists, administrators and education
service center staff have served on one of more of these committees. (TEA)
The following is the list of steps used to create each test, as it is
reported from the Texas Education Agency (* is used to show steps that are
repeated annually).

; Committees of Texas educators review the state-mandated curriculum
to develop appropriate assessment objectives for a specific grade
and/or subject test. Educators provide advice on a model or
structure for assessing the particular subject that aligns with
good classroom instruction.

; Educator committees work with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to
prepare draft objectives, which are distributed widely for review
by teachers, curriculum specialists, assessment specialists, and
administrators.

; Draft objectives and proposed skills are refined based on input
from Texas educators.

; Sample test items are written to measure each objective and, when
necessary, are piloted by Texas students from volunteer classrooms.

; Educator committees assist in the developing guidelines for
assessing each objective. These guidelines outline the eligible
test content and test item formats and include sample items.

; With educator input, a preliminary test blueprint is developed that
sets the length of the test and the number of test items measuring
each objective.

; Professional item writers, many of whom are former or current Texas
teachers, develop items based on the objectives and the item
guidelines. *
; TEA curriculum and assessment specialists review and revise the
proposed test items. *
; Item review committees composed of Texas educators review the
revised items to judge the appropriateness of item content and
difficulty and to eliminate potential bias. *
; Items are revised again based on input from Texas educator
committee meetings and are field-tested with large representative
samples of Texas students. *
; Field-test data are analyzed for reliability, validity, and
possible bias. *
; Data review committees composed of Texas educators are trained in
statistical analysis of field-test data and review each item and
its associated data. The committees determine whether items are
appropriate for inclusion in the bank of items from which test
forms are built. *
; A final blueprint is developed that establishes the length of the
test and the number of test items measuring each objective. *
; All field-test items and data are entered into a computerized item
bank. Tests are built from the item bank and are designed to be
equivalent in difficulty from one administration to the next. *
; Tests are administered to Texas students, and results are reported
at the student, campus, district, regional, and state levels. *
; Stringent quality control measures are applied to all stages of
printing, scanning, scoring, and reporting. *
The TAAS test is composed of five sections: reading, writing, math, science
and social studies. Since the test’s full implementation in 1994, reading
and mathematics has been administered in grades three through eight. The
writing test is also given in grades four, eight and ten. In grade eight
social studies and science are also tested (Klien, 2000). The test is
completely multiple-choice except for the writing section. In the writing
section students are required to write a short essay along with the
multiple choice. The students are given one topic that they must write on;
these are typically persuasive papers.


For many students the test does pose a problem. However, several students
find it too easy and a waste of their precious time. Because the test was
designed to only assess the minimum skills that a student should have in
that grade level, it is often too easy for people who possess slightly more
than what the test measures. However, another factor comes into play here.

“The level of achievement expected of our public schools is shockingly
low.” (1997, Judson) Though the test is designed to test the minimum
skills that a student should have in a certain grade level, it has often
been found that the test is actually several years below the level. “The
most rigorous elements in the tenth grade, exit level TAAS test is actually
eighth grade level material.” (1997, Judson) On top of the test having an
easier caliber of difficulty, the grading level on the test is easier than
one would expect. A passing score is seventy percent. One would think
that this is seventy percent of questions correct; however, it is actually
a “seventy percent standard”. This means that the score may have been
adjusted upward to account for “difficult” questions (1997, Judson).


The difficulty of the test is shockingly low, and in my opinion is a
disgrace to students everywhere. Not only does it make it entirely too
easy to pass the test for some, but it also sends students into the world
with a minimal education level. While students go to school for twelve
years, they are only being required to know enough material for eight
years. While other students across the nation are required to meet the
requirements of their grade level, Texas students are tested at a lower
level. This gives the Texas students a severe disadvantage to other
students throughout the United States. However, because these tests are so
easy the students appear to be scoring higher than other students across
the nation. This is a false outward show. The TAAS test is being used to
show the world that Texas students are smarter than others, and giving a
forged precedent for other states. Also, lowering the percentage of
questions required to be correct in order to pass allows more substandard
students to get through the test. Especially because the harder questions
are thrown out of the test to allow the scores to be higher, it is becoming
even easier to pass.


There is a large problem with the writing test. This section of the test
does not test students’ actual writing abilities. There are a few multiple-
choice questions that have a student choose run-on sentences from sentence
fragments. However, because the section of the test that forces the
student to write an actual essay is always a persuasive paper there is
little talent involved. Donna Garner, a classroom teacher, says, “Students
just have to be taught how to ‘play the game’ by extending their persuasive
arguments and by inserting certain ‘approved’ strategies-not how to write
well by using correct English.” (Garner) In 1993 the writing topic was over
putting arcade games into school cafeterias. Although this is a topic that
many school children could write and talk about, it was not much of a
challenge. Students are taught to have three arguments and three
supporting points for each argument. As long as a student has these,
he/she is almost guaranteed to pass, regardless of the spelling and grammar
problems in the essay. A well-supported argument is found more important
than basic English skills.


Another major problem with the test is the high-stakes associated with it.

The most obvious of these is forcing students to pass the test before they
are allowed to walk across the graduation stage. Many students who do not
feel qualified enough to pass the test simply give up and drop out without
even trying. In the 1996-1997 school year, 1.8% of the state’s dropouts
stated failing the TAAS test/not being able to meet all graduation
requirements as the reason that they left school. (TEA) This is part of
the reason that Texas has the lowest graduation rate in the entire United
States (1997, Judson). These are the students who need to be given help,
and who need special attention, for dropping out of school is rarely the
answer. However, for these students, there is little hope to pass as there
are few special help programs available for them. Other students, who are
competent to pass the test, get a horrible test anxiety and fail the test.


Another major issue that involves high-stakes is the grading of schools
based on TAAS test results. Although only thirty percent of students who
pass the test is necessary for a school to be found acceptable, this is
often a sore subject with school districts. Many schools want to be seen
as “recognized” schools, and this requires a seventy percent passing rate.

Only fourteen percent of Texas schools were seen as recognized in the
1994/1995 academic school year (1997, Judson). The amount of money given
to a school can also depend on the test scores that their students receive.

These standards require many schools to cheat on the test, and they
receive higher grades than should have been awarded to them.A few weeks
before the test the teachers often share “rumors” of what may be on the
test with their students. The Texas Education Agency is given the
authority to take control of any district that is not performing acceptably
by Section 39.131 of the Texas Education Code. This means that the job
positions of all powerful officials in the district, as well as everything
about the district, are dependent on the TAAS test grades. Teachers
themselves are given evaluation on the performance of the students in their
classes. A teacher can even lose his/her job based on the scores of their
students.


The high-stakes testing leads to many different problems. The amount of
students dropping out is a large issue. The students who drop out often do
not continue education at all. In today’s society a high school degree is
required of most jobs. If a student does not have one of these degrees and
cannot get a job, it leads to a higher unemployment rate. This causes more
issues on the economic well being of the state. Holding the teachers and
districts accountable for the scores of students is, in itself, a good
idea. However it can have its downfalls. In his speech to the House
Committee on Education and the Workforce, Kurt M. Landgraf, President and
Chief Executive Officer of the Educational Testing Service said, “The
rewards/sanctions system needs to be carefully planned if it is to avoid
being trivial, counterproductive or corrupted.” The system of
accountability in Texas is on the verge of this right now. Right now it
has become corrupted, as schools and districts forge and cheat on their
tests so that they can have better scores. The pressure on the local
school districts requires the districts to place a large emphasis on the
tests.


The pressure on the school districts and teachers leads to the major
problem with the TAAS test. “Teaching the Test” has become a large problem
in Texas. Most of the curriculum is based on the TAAS test. Students
spend large quantities of time taking practice tests, or doing work sheets
designed to help students be more prepared for the test and understand the
workings of the TAAS test better. Teachers admit that they are spending
large amounts of time on test preparation and that because of the time
devoted to the test there is less time to teach other subjects (Judson,
1997).


Teaching the test leads to frustration on many parts. The first is the
frustration of students. One can do practice tests and worksheets so many
times before it gets aggravating. Also, these tests put a student on a one-
track mind. Instead of learning all aspects of reading and writing
students are merely taught how to pass the test, and how to understand the
information on the test. This is especially true for elementary and junior
high school when the TAAS test is given every year. The students do not
learn everything, and are not given a well-rounded education. Because the
social studies and science tests are not given until the eighth grade,
little time is spent on these subjects at lower grade levels. In order to
be prepared for more advanced classes in high school and college the
students need to get a good foundation for these classes at a younger age.

Students who have friends in other states learn at an early age that they
are missing out on many fundamentals, and come to resent school and
teachers for leaving them out of a true educational experience. Though
these tests are designed to ensure that students are learning what they are
supposed to, in all actuality it hinders their learning process while in
public schools and later in higher education.


The people who resent standardized testing the most is the teachers. Many
of the best teachers enter their field of work because they want to teach.

The teachers quickly learn that they are not allowed to teach as they would
like to, and are often hindered from teaching everything that they believe
a student should know. Bread Loaf Scholar, National Writing Project and
high school English teacher, Vivian Axiotis composed this poem to express
her frustration with the affect of standardized testing (English Journal,
2001):
My students have lost
Faith in the value of tests
Faith in their ability to succeed,
Faith in the educational system
As a teacher I have lost
Faith in the value of tests
Faith in their ability to succeed,
Faith in the system that once worked so well for me
My students have lost
Time to write, especially creatively,
Time to read a poem alongside the short story we’re studying
Time to integrate other disciplines, ideas
As a teacher I have lost
Time to write, especially creatively,
Time to find, then share a poem alongside the short story we’re reading
Time to integrate other disciplines, ideas
Even though I know this is far more important
Teachers do not want to spend weeks and months on drilling test information
instead of spending time reading books and doing science experiments
(English Journal, 2001, 33). However, these drills and exercises have
become part of the state and local curriculum, and the teachers know that
not following that curriculum could lead to them losing the jobs that they
love so much. Teaching their students to do well on the TAAS test has
become the job of teachers in the Texas Educational System, and the job of
teaching the students to learn and to enjoy learning has been left behind.


The Texas school districts have been experiencing an extreme drought in the
pool for new teachers. This can partially be related back to the TAAS
test. Because of all of the restrictions put on teachers, many teachers do
not want to deal with the administration. Many good teachers, who love the
students and their job, have left teaching simply because of all of the
pressure being placed on them. Many administration officials are not
willing to give them leeway on their plans or dealings with the students,
as they do not want to risk a lowering in the TAAS scores in their school.

There are many meetings and training sessions over the TAAS test, and these
are all mandatory for teachers. The teachers, who throw in the towel on
the helping their students learn, do it because the TAAS has taken over the
classroom, and left the true learning outside the school.


The TAAS test is a hot topic in the educational world, even for those not
from the state of Texas. Because of the easiness of the test, the
reward/punishment system for districts, and the time spent teaching the
test, the TAAS test scores in Texas are actually on the rise. Due to this
fact, many other school systems are trying to reproduce the TAAS test,
hoping that it will improve their students’ scores as well. This idea is
drawing much criticism and analysis of the TAAS test from people across the
nation. The problems are coming out. The only way to solve the
discrepancies between these tests is for Texas to return to using a
nationally recognized test. This would force the students to compete with
their peers across the nation, and force the teachers to meet national
standards. This would keep the Texans from living in their own little
world, and thrust them into the rest of the country’s high standards. A
national test would also give teachers the ability to teach more freely and
add different things to the curriculum that they find important. As
teachers are given more freedom they can adjust the lessons to the students
in any given year, rather than giving students the same TAAS practice
sheets year after year. When a teacher can plan his/her lessons around the
students currently enrolled in his/her class, the students will more than
likely learn more.


Instead of simply using the test as an analysis of the local school
district and teacher, the test results need to focus more on the individual
student. Though all students are given the results of their tests, it has
little to no actual use to them. Kurt M. Landgraf said, “These results
should be used to diagnose a student’s needs, to help determine promotion
to the next grade, or to suggest remediation.” This does not happen very
regularly in the Texas school system. Students are often passed to the
next grade level even though they are not able to pass these tests, which
are in fact on a level below them. This simply forces the student to
become farther behind in their learning. Though individual assessment would
take more work on the teachers’ part, it would add greatly to the amount
that a single student learns, adding to the greatness of the whole. Though
using the test to determine the students’ eligibility to move on to the
next grade level would simply add to the high-stakes of the test, using the
test to determine a students placement in remediation would help give
certain students more help in areas that they are struggling to understand.

This does have a downfall, as there are many ways for this good intention
to go wrong. Having fifty year old third graders simply because they can
not test is not the answer. Students who fail the test must be watched
carefully and given the proper help to more on. Implementing a law to make
students pass would do no good if programs were not put into place that
would help those students who have difficulty with the test.


At this time the State Board of Education has adopted a new test. The
Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) test will be replacing the TAAS
test for the first time in almost ten years. Little is known about this
test, and there are no results on it as this will be the first year that it
will be given. This test has been in talks for a long time and the cries
of teachers and students who resent the test are finally being answered.

The hope for this test is that it will improve the morale of the students
and teachers, and that this test will improve the education of the state’s
students. Because the test covers all five areas (math, reading, writing,
science and social studies) annually and therefore should give Texas
students a more well rounded education. However, there doesn’t seem to be
much hope for this test among teachers and administrators. To these people
it is just another item in a line of frustrations.


One may ask, why, if there are so many problems, does the government not do
anything to correct these problems? In response: there is no real reason.

It is obvious that those in charge of the tests have realized that there is
something wrong, as they are now releasing the TEKS test. This is one step
in solving the many problems. However, by raising the difficulty of the
test and making it harder to pass, scores will most likely go down. By
lowering the scores the Texas education system will lose all of the praise
and attention that it has been receiving for the rapidly rising scores.

For those who do not look closely into the information behind the
standardized test problem in Texas, there really seems to be nothing but
good going on. As long as test scores are on the rise, everything must be
fine. Unfortunately this is not the case; everything is not fine. And
those who think that everything in are resorting to the “if it isn’t broke
don’t fix it” mentality. While Texas appears good on paper, something
needs to be done to fix the things not on paper; the children need to be
helped. Maybe this is the reason that the government sits idly by as the
children fall further behind their peers from other states.


The Texas Education System is doing its best to ensure that its children do
get a good education, there just seems to be a few snags in their road to
greatness. Their best intentions seem to have turned against them, simply
leading to problems. By analyzing their problems, they can come to a
solution that will be the lesser of evils, for there can never be a true
perfect policy. Maybe with a few changes they can quiet the walk to the
test room. Maybe they can do something to make the students feel better,
as well as the teachers and administrators. Along the way, they can
improve the education in the state and start sending more prepared students
into the real world.


I have neither given or received, nor have I tolerated others’ use of
unauthorized aid.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
(September 2001). English Journal: Assessing Ourselves to Death.

Judson, J. (April 1997). The True State of Texas Education. Texas Public
Policy
Foundation: www.tppf.org
Garner, D. Texas Alternative Document.

www.fastlane.net/~eca/garnerteks.html
Klien, S., & Hamilton, L., & McCaffrey, D., Stecher, B. (2000). What Do
Test
Scores in Texas Tell Us? RAND: www.rand.org
Landgraf, K. (2001). Testimony Before the Education Reform Subcommittee.

The Texas Education Agency Webpage. www.tea.state.tx.us
The Texas State Senate Webpage. www.senate.state.tx.us

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