Texas' Big Test


According to Gov. George W. Bush, his state has enjoyed a "Texas miracle" in education under his watch, a renaissance in learning that could sweep the United States if he's elected president. With nonwhite students' scores rising on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test sometimes called the nation's report card, friendly pundits have declared Texas a scholarly Shangri-La for blacks and Hispanics. Douglas Carnine, a professor of education at the University of Oregon and a Bush adviser, has boasted, "If you're a minority, move to Texas."

But as Bush touts this record and other states move to mimic his state's approach, a closer look at test scores in Texas reveals a more enigmatic picture. According to the state's own basic skills tests, young Texans have made tremendous academic gains in the past decade. Scores on college entrance exams, however, have stagnated during the same period. In SAT scores Texas outperforms only Georgia, the Carolinas, and the District of Columbia. ACT scores, while a bit better, are tied for 39th place–hardly an impressive showing. Texas SAT scores have risen slightly in the past decade, but not as much as the scores of the nation as a whole. And while fourth grade math scores and eighth grade writing scores are near the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, other NAEP results are middling or below average.

Heaven knows, things could be worse. When I began teaching in Texas in 1983, a large chunk of the population was simply written off as either unteachable or unworthy of an education. These "low-group" classes bore little resemblance to the academic-track classes just a few hallways over.

In the low-group ghetto, one of my colleagues showed popular movies four days a week. A class down the hall was constantly basing art projects on the works of literature the higher-track students were actually reading. Interruptions were frequent. The intercom blared constantly. Afternoon classes were dismissed for even junior varsity sports events, and large numbers would be excused to be practice heads for cosmetology class. Frequent absences were tolerated.

Back then, supposedly enlightened educators "understood" that the poor, the disadvantaged, and the culturally different learned in their own way and thus were to be held to a lower standard. Just as the legal system meted its weakest punishments to those who committed minority-on-minority crime, the state paid scant attention to minority administrators who mismanaged minority schools. Most important, the students themselves accepted, in fact sometimes demanded, inferior standards. Naively convinced that the purpose of study was to serve one's time and receive a diploma, they were content to rot in undemanding corners.

That all changed in 1984, with the creation of the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimal Skills, which established a minimum standard for graduation. Soon thereafter, this was replaced with an only slightly more difficult test, the euphemistically-named Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. The state also separately monitored the scores of different ethnic and economic groups, creating a system that assured that all high school graduates would possess at least a solid elementary school education. For setting this minimum standard and holding even its worst students to it, Texas deserves to boast.

Unfortunately, this approach has fostered two less worthy phenomena: Many of our schools now devote extraordinary amounts of time to preparing for the TAAS. And some schools are now so focused on the formerly ignored groups that education for average and above-average students is suffering.

The amount of time spent on TAAS preparation varies from school to school, but few, if any, are untouched. In suburban districts, teachers complain of having to dedicate substantial blocks of time–maybe one or two days per week, maybe the first 20 minutes of each class–to TAAS. In inner city and rural schools with substantial minority enrollments, real textbooks are being crowded out by such titles as TAAS Coach, TAAS Master, TAASPrep, TAAS Student Strategy Guide, Breaking the TAAS Code, Step up to TAAS, and Book and Brain for TAAS. While some of this test preparation is genuinely academic, much simply reviews below-grade-level basics or, worse, imparts mere test-taking gimmicks.

The following "reading strategies" are among those that other teachers and I have "learned" from consultants and TAAS preparation materials over the past 10 years:

• Number every paragraph and line of a reading passage and then write the line and paragraph number where the answer is found next to each question.

• Highlight words in the text that match words in the questions or the answer choices.

• Work backward, plugging each answer into the question if appropriate.

• Learn key phrases that in released TAAS exams indicate whether a question can be answered by matching words in the text with words in the answer choices. If so, highlight matching phrases. Unless there are contrary signals, assume that the matching choice is the correct answer.

• Ask yourself, "Could I be expected to know that?" If not, look for answers in the text.

At one workshop, a consultant showed us a practice passage for eighth grade students and asked us to apply the last strategy. The question related to the presidential election of 1864. Faced with such a question, we were told, students should understand that such knowledge would not be expected of them, so they should look for the answer in the passage. Sure enough, we found a table that showed that the winner was Abraham Lincoln.

In some schools, children who have read no more than a handful of books in their lives spend their reading classes–and part of their social studies and science classes–in this manner, sometimes taking an entire hour on a single page.

The writing strategies aren't much better. For instance: "Since a student is more likely to make mistakes when writing compound and complex sentences, avoid them. Meet TAAS writing standards by using at least one adjective per sentence and one metaphor per paragraph."

Let me rephrase this for readers who are recent graduates of Texas public schools: "Long sentences are hard. They make you make very bad mistakes. Make your sentences as easy as cherry pie. Then you will always be correct. Use exciting describing words. Use nice phrases with the words 'as…as.' Then you will always write good TAAS essays."

And the math strategies?

• Draw a picture that represents the problem. If 25 people are traveling in five cars, draw five cars, and mark in them, one at a time, until you reach 25. The number of marks in each car will be the number of passengers.

• Learn the "TAAS code." Total usually means add but occasionally means multiply. More, less, and difference usually mean subtract. If the question includes the word equally, the operation will probably be division.

• If there are two numbers in the problem, and one is very large and the other is very small, the operation will probably be division.

• Work backward from the answer choices. Plug them into the problem if appropriate. Decide which answers are unreasonable and eliminate them.

• Always use the picture provided.

• Make a chart.

• Do not rely on your knowledge of number facts. If you are unsure, draw and count sticks. Remember that the TAAS has no time limit.

Math students may likewise spend an entire hour solving a few simple arithmetic problems, each in various ways: with real math, then with pictures, then with sticks, then with a chart. Such students are poorly prepared for algebra, or for that matter any career that involves keeping track of inventory or making change. But they do well on the TAAS.

Again, these gimmicks are not merely part of the curriculum. In some Texas schools, they have become the curriculum. Most frightening is that these practices have vocal defenders, those who will tell you that disadvantaged students need to know these tricks to compete with their peers, or that such instruction actually covers necessary basics.

What about the tremendous progress minorities are supposed to be making? It's real, but there's less than meets the eye. Blacks' and Hispanics' TAAS and NAEP results are improving nicely, but their college board scores are not. In fact, SAT scores for Texas Hispanics have actually dropped slightly in recent years. Apologists claim that this is due to rising numbers of Hispanics taking the SAT, but the increase in Hispanic SAT takers is in line with the increase in the Hispanic population.

Schools are ranked as "recognized" or "exemplary" based on their TAAS scores despite having combined SAT scores that average in the 800s or ACT scores in the teens. Texas' Region I, an area that stretches along the Rio Grande from the Gulf of Mexico to Laredo and is the most Hispanic area in Texas, saw SAT scores drop from 1993 to 1997, a period in which scores rose slightly nationally.

Although minority and low-income students are overrepresented at the bottom of the academic scale, it is a mistake to equate minority status with poor academic performance. While our Rio Grande Valley schools–the eastern portion of Region I–often host teenaged immigrants from Mexico who have only had a few years of primary school, and some who have attended no school at all, we also receive many immigrant students who are far superior academically to those who are American-born. Students who have attended escuela prepatatoria, the Mexican equivalent of an American high school, tend to perform at a much higher level than their American-educated peers.

So it's interesting to note immigrant parents' reactions to the Texas schools. My next-door neighbor, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, complains that, although the Texas Education Agency has deemed her son's school "exemplary," he was still adding and subtracting by drawing and counting sticks long after his cousins in Monterrey had learned their basic math facts. Another acquaintance, a former business professor from Instituto Politecnico in Mexico City who had come to Texas to manage one of the ubiquitous border-area plants where Mexican workers assemble American parts, was shocked when his daughter, who had been studying algebra in Mexico, was now "learning" how to add fractions. Another, a former Monterrey teacher, lost her job teaching nominally gifted students at a Rio Grande Valley elementary school after screaming at her principal, "What's the matter with them? Are they retarded?"

Then there's Eloisa, who teaches a bilingual class in a Dallas suburb. "Third grade is focused completely on TAAS," she recently wrote to the Teachers' Chatboard, an Internet group. "I'm a third grade teacher and that's all I do. I hate it, but I'm under pressure to do it. The bad news is that 4th, 5th and so on are also focused totally on TAAS. Last week I performed a little experiment: I gave my third grade students 4th, 5th and 6th grade TAAS tests (Reading). The results: 19 out of 21 passed the 4th grade test, 16 passed the 5th, 11 passed the 6th. Conclusion: Public schools aren't designed to…impart knowledge, but to teach strategies to pass a stupid and useless test.…My honest advice: homeschool your kid or send him to a private school."

Texas' education establishment now knows that virtually all children are educable. That does not seem like a major epiphany, but it has improved instruction for the state's worst students, minority and otherwise. If we were to compare the academic levels of the bottom 40 percent of students in each state, I suspect that Texas would come out near the top. If we compared the other 60 percent, I suspect that we would come out near the bottom. Our SAT and ACT scores seem to bear this out.

Few teachers, students, or parents believe that there has been a Texas miracle, but educrats and politicians are shouting this message from the rooftops. Since test scores are up, they say, it's time to praise the teachers, promote the administrators, and send Gov. Bush to the White House. And don't forget: Good TAAS scores are great for the property values in your neighborhood.

It's time for a reality check. It's good that the members of our education underclass can now figure their own restaurant bills and can read warning signs, T-shirts, and TAAS passages. But such modest success shouldn't be confused with a miracle.