Does TAKS truly measure proficiency?

By Willis Webb | Published Sunday, August 8, 2010

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When education becomes a political football, which it does all too often, school children suffer. And, if there’s one area in which national standards are crucial, education is it.

The No Child Left Behind Law allows states to define proficiency. Each state has a test that measures accomplishment and proficiency. Texas children are tested with the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).

Since federal law allows each state to define proficiency and to design tests accordingly, there is one test administered that provides a yardstick to each state’s testing, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The test is very straightforward and is given to a representative level of fourth- and eighth-grade students in all states. It is said to be a tough test because it is designated to match the level of difficulty of tests used by the industrialized nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Students are rated not on how well they do on NAEP but on the gap between state scores and NAEP.

A recent story in the press revealed that Texas has changed TAKS’ passing levels from year to year, and there are those who feel those moves are politically motivated. When the TAKS scores are compared to NAEP marks in Texas, one can make a case for political motivation.

No state’s test scores match NAEP, but a number of states come close. Texas does not. The Lone Star State outranks only Illinois, Michigan, Alabama, Nebraska and Tennessee. The top five states are Massachusetts, Missouri, Washington, Hawaii and New Mexico.

Now the Texas Education Agency will tell you that students performed better on the TAKS test this year. And, if you look at the TAKS scores only, that’s true. In some cases, however, the children could pass by getting fewer than half of the items right. Additionally, the TAKS was field tested with a sample of students. Depending on how well the field tests go, TEA adjusts the number needed to answer correctly to pass.

This year, TEA lowered passing standards more than the previous two years. In social studies testing for eighth-graders, the students were required to get 21 of 48 questions (that’s 44 percent) correct to pass. The previous year, the numbers were 25 of 52 or 52 percent. Any test I took in school at first required 60 and was ultimately moved to 70 out of 100, considerably more than half. Most recent TAKS testing required a passing bar of any where from 44 to 73 percent.

In 2009, only 38 percent of Texas fourth-graders rated as proficient in math and 28 percent in reading on the NAEP test. However, 86 percent passed TAKS in math and 84 percent in reading. Eighth-graders did similarly on TAKS but on the NAEP, 36 percent passed math and 27 percent reading. The TAKS scores were 79 and 93 respectively.

Some states did similarly to Texas on NAEP testing but there was not a big gap between their state test scores and the national test.

Lest you doubt the validity of these comparisons, know that Texas students ranked 48th in 2003, 38th in 2005, 42nd in 2007 and 44th last year.

According to a news story, Dr. Paul E. Peterson, a political scientist who leads Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, “States will claim they have their own standards of proficiency, and that’s fine.

“Texas is one of the states that is trying to obscure that to their citizens.”

This business of basing educational advancement on one standardized test that is massaged to bring the best possible results, is shortchanging Texas children. Public schools are still not allowed to teach critical thinking skills, and the truth will come out when our students have to compete with the rest of the world for jobs and for business.

Proficiency needs a new definition and a realistic measuring stick in Texas.

Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by e-mail at wwebb@wildblue.net.

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