Thursday, January 18, 2007

Time for a New Test?

The winds of change are blowin' again in the Lone Star State. Just as teachers and students alike are beginning to adapt to the demands of the infamous TAKS test, our esteemed legislators are plotting a new testing system centered around End-Of-Course exams rather than grade level tests. I'm so frustrated right now. I almost feel I could walk right down to Austin and kick someone, preferably a politician. But alas, they are forecasting a terrible snow storm for tonight and tomorrow so I think I'll just sit here and vent via my laptop.

Let me see if I can articulate my grievances with the End-of-Course exams. When I began teaching in 1998, End-0f-Course exams were required in Algebra I, Biology, English, and US History. I am only familiar with the results in Algebra I so I speak from the perspective of a math teacher. The passing rate for the state never rose above 31% during the five years I administered the Algebra I End-Of-Course exam. The first year my school gave the exam, 17% of our students passed it. Are these dismal results due to a lack of poor teaching or unmotivated students? If you just look at numbers, what other conclusion could be drawn?

I'd like to propose a different view. In my experience, except for the brightest students, algebra I is rarely mastered in one year. Learning algebra, for most students, is a process that will continue throughout high school. Students will continue their mathematical journey as they progress through geometry, algebra II, Chemistry, and Physics. As students apply the skills and concepts learned in algebra I in other courses, their algebraic knowledge grows and develops. To expect mastery of the subject to be accomplished by the end of their freshman year is ludicrous.

My next grievance is with the addition of End-of-Course exams in not only Algebra I, but in geometry and Algebra II also. Geometry, I can understand, but Algebra II? Algebra II is an essential course for both college or technical school bound students. It is the gateway to all higher level math and science courses. But, by no means, should algebra II be required for all graduation diplomas. How do they propose to deal with the large number of students who take Algebra II their senior year? End-of-Course exams are given during the last two weeks of the school year. If a senior fails their Algebra II exam there will be no opportunity to retake the test and the student will not be granted their diploma. Is this fair???????

My next fear for the End-of-Course exam is the large number of tests that a student will have to take. One argument in favor of doing away with the TAKS tests says that this will reduce testing for our students. I really don't see that happening. I could be wrong on this one, I haven't actually seen any of the proposed bills, but from what I've heard, it will be more tests, not less.

I guess another thing bothering me concerns our textbooks. When I began teaching, Texas had just adopted new math text books. At the time we were still under the TAAS system so all of the books were geared to TAAS. Within 5 years, however, we made the big jump to TAKS. This switch resulted in our new textbooks being obsolete and teachers began to write their own curriculums. Teachers who didn't have the time or resourses to create materials spent millions (maybe billions?) of dollars on TAKS preparation materials for their students. Now, in 2007, we are about to adopt new books which are geared and written with TAKS in mind. And guess what will happen to these brand new textbooks within a couple of years? That's right. . .useless. Of course the people who write test prep curriculum will again be rolling in the dough as we poor teachers scramble to find materials to prepare our students. Maybe this whole thing is about MONEY?????? One of my mentors told me in 1998 that she believed the reason Texas changed tests every few years was motivated by greed and not by any desire for real change and reform in public education. Of course, I didn't believe her then, but I am starting to wonder.

Today, our superintendent visited our faculty meeting and stated that he wanted our input to relay to our representative about our concerns about End-Of-Course exams. He told us that numerous bills were about to be proposed in Austin which would do away with TAKS and replace it with End-Of-Course exams. The teachers in the room began vehemently opposing the idea of ending the TAKS test. Many became very upset with the idea of a new change coming so close on the heels of our last test overhaul. It was only a year and a half ago that we graduated our first class (2005)who fell under the TAKS requirement.

We were quickly stopped in our tracks when our SUPERintendent (detect the sarcasm?) said that he would rephrase his first statement. He said we were not being asked about "if" it should happen, because it was going to happen whether we liked it or not. He was asking us if we wanted to have input concerning its implementation. So, the long and short of it is, the politicians of the grand state of Texas have taken it upon themselves to decide what is best for the students of our state. The very people, who could give the clearest insight and best advice, were not consulted and our opinions don't seem to matter. Will someone please listen to us? Will someone please come to our classrooms and see the struggles and triumphs that occur each and every day in our classrooms. Spend time with us. Spend time in an algebra I classroom, especially one on a campus with a large number of at-risk students.

So I guess the moral of the story is that if you want to be a teacher in Texas, you better be ready for the winds of change. I'm predict a strong storm front moving in from the South. It's coming from the Austin area and building up strength as it blows across the land. I just pray that by the time it hits West Texas, I'll have the strength to withstand the blast.

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