Nausea, nail biting, clammy palms, soaring blood pressure,sweaty brows, migraine headaches, chills running down the spine — symptoms of the latest flu bug, allergies, a new virus? Not even close! These are classic symptoms experienced by many students, their teachers, and more than a few nervous parents each spring during Texas State Assessment season. Students have historically considered accountability testing the bane of their existence but today’s high stakes TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) exams are responsible for the epidemic spread of stress and stress related physical and emotional ailments.

The following anecdotes illustrate the degree of pressure students experience on TAKS days. Elementary teacher Pat Rainey reports that during last week’s assessments a young girl arrived prepared to take the latest round of TAKS tests wearing her daddy’s glasses. It seems she couldn’t find her own but was willing to risk teasing by her peers so she could perform well on the test. Another student entered the same classroom in a panic thinking he was tardy for the TAKS test. He described his distress when he discovered that both the family car and the nearest neighbor’s car had flat tires and how relieved he was when a third party rescued and delivered him to school in the nick of time. Assessment and accountability are vital to ensuring that our students achieve at a level that supports success in higher grades and in postgraduate pursuits, but at some point, the benefits are outweighed by the negative factors associated with test preparation anxiety for students and teachers alike.

In recent years, Texas students have improved their performance on the TAKS to the degree that a “more rigorous” replacement test has been developed. Looming on the horizon is the dreaded series of STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) tests, which will replace the TAKS, and usher in the advent of EOC (End of Course) exams and the highest stakes ever. The STAAR/EOC assessments were created, at great expense, by a state strapped for educational funding.  And, according to Legislative Chair of the State Education Committee Senator Florence Shapiro, without regard to the additional cost of printing, administering, scoring, and reporting, both STAAR and EOC will roll out on schedule. Even in the face of massive cuts to education, lawmakers apparently deem the timely appearance of STAAR/EOC of greater significance than saving educator jobs. Questionable priorities when school districts are forced to lay off staff members, increase class sizes and educator workloads, eliminate programs and reduce incentives for future generations to consider educating Texas youth as a viable career choice. How did we reach such an untenable state?  

A historical perspective was provided by Marilyn Kuehlem, writing for the Texas Public School Handbook. A summary of her work follows.  One of the primary education reform efforts in Texas can be traced back to 1949 with the passage of the Gilmer-Aikin legislation which called for a new public school system model to improve education.  Eventually a statewide exam, the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS), which tested students in Grades 3, 5, and 9 from 1980-84 was instituted. The Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills (TEAMS) was implemented in 1985 and remained the state test until 1990. The same year, schools put into practice the Essential Elements of Instruction, developed a new, more difficult state assessment called the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), and replaced annual performance reports with the Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS). The TAAS was used to measure educational performance for the next 12 years.  

In 1993, legislation revamped the Texas Education Code pulling together laws for assessment, accreditation, performance reporting, and accountability. The first district and campus accountability ratings, based on the TAAS test in reading, writing, and math, as well as annual dropout and attendance rates, were assigned in 1993-94. In 1996, Texas began efforts to upgrade the statewide curriculum and testing system and adopted the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) in 1998.

With the passage of Senate Bill 103, lawmakers toughened testing and promotion requirements, beginning with the 2002–2003 school year. A more rigorous assessment, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), was aligned with the student learning standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). This test had an additional requirement for students in the area of promotion called the Student Success Initiative (SSI) requiring students enrolled in the 3rd grade to pass the reading section of the TAKS test in order to be promoted to the 4th grade. The exit-level test required for graduation changed to the 11th grade and additional testing requirements were established for the 5th and 8th grades.  Beginning with the graduating class of 2004–05, Texas students were required to pass new 11th grade exit-level tests to graduate and all high school students were required to begin their freshman year with a plan to complete the state’s Recommended High School Program.  

This summary of evolving assessment practices in Texas brings us to the inevitable launch of the new STAAR and EOC plans.  In the lower grades, STAAR testing will include:  grades 3-8 Math and Reading, grades 4-7 writing, grades 5-8 science, and grade 8 social studies.  Current eighth graders who will beninth graders in 2011-2012, will be the first class to participate in End of Course exams.  All other high school students will finish with the TAKS.  EOCs will be subject specific rather than grade-level tests andwill be given in the following subjects:  English I, II, and III; Algebra I and II and Geometry; Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; and World Geography, World History, and U.S. History.

In comparing STAAR and TAKS, the Texas Education Agency stresses increased rigor, more open-ended Math and Science questions and a 3 year reviewto ensure college readiness standards are met. Testing requirements for graduation will significantly increase. While TAKS represented four “hurdles” for students, STAAR represents 12 for students taking the recommended high school program.  The Performance Standards will not be set until 2012 after the first administration of the exam and Alternate Assessments for challenged students and students with limited English proficiency are still under discussion.TAKS required 25 days of testing.  STAAR/EOC will require 45 days of testing when fully implemented. A new Accountability System must also be developed to reflect STAAR standards, yet another costly undertaking in a time of scant educational funding.  

The continuing modification of the STAAR/EOC, Performance Standards, and a new Accountability System prior to rollout provides multiple challenges for Education Service Centers (ESC).  Legislators are still debating scoring and graduation requirements such as the percentage an EOC score must represent in a final course average, the minimum score students must meet on each test, and cumulative totals required for graduation in each subject (ex:  ELA cumulative Score = English I + II + III scores).  ESC’s are responsible for developing appropriate training for the educators charged with preparing students to succeed in a more rigorous testing environment and they are being expected to hit a moving target.  

The value of educational accountability cannot be questioned but certainly a better time to initiate a comprehensive new assessment system could have been chosen.  The existing financial downturn, despondent job market, and hints of additional cuts in state revenue should suggest to the prudent that further damage to morale in the public school systems is counterproductive.  Districts across Texas have already been forced to cut valuable hardworking staff members in an effort to compensate forpast legislative mistakes.  Senator Shapiro’s concerns about having already spent millions on developing STAAR/EOC do not justify throwing more good money after bad during a financial crisis.  It may indeed prove to be the finest assessment system in the country, but now is not the time to bankroll it.  Texas teachers will work harder than meeting student needs with fewer instructional assistants, larger classes and limited supplies because they are committed professionals determined to do their best for the individuals they serve. Perhaps our elected officials should follow suit.

In campus news:  Math teacher Cody Mitchell reports that the Elkhart High School Academic Team competed successfully at the district meet.  The number sense, calculator, math, science, literary criticism, journalism, and speech teams all won 1st place, while the social studies and computer science teams received 2ndplace.  Students won 15 1st place, 8 2nd place, 4 3rd place, 12 4th place, 7 5th place and 2 6thplace awards.  Bryan Thompson earned the Top Chemistry and Top Physics awards. EHS easily won the overall meet with 602 points, while the 2nd place school mustered up 263.  A total of 19 students will be advancing to compete at the regional meet in 16 different events.

Agriculture teacher Lance Thomas proudly announced that student Ryan Hampton was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from the Fort Worth Livestock Show and Trey Thomas qualified for the Jr. High State Finals in bull riding.  Band Director Wes Canaday shared that the High School, Middle School and Beginner Bands are working feverishly on their contest music. The HS went to UIL contest on Thursday, April 7 at Bullard HS, while the MS goes to UIL contest on Thursday, April 14 at Whitehouse HS.  The Beginner Band will perform at the 41st annual Sandy Lake Funfest in Dallas on Friday, April 15.  The HS Band has also been invited to perform at a fundraiser for a non-profit organization that provides scholarships to children of wounded or deceased servicemen and women called God, Country & Family.  We will perform at that event on Saturday, April 30. Kathy Marlowe’s high school art students are painting a huge canvas backdrop for the same event as a service project of the National Art Honor Society.  

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Mike Moon is the superintendent of Elkhart Independent School District.

 

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