Validity of Texas tests questioned

Schools: Scores improve in state exams but stagnate in national tests, sparking debate over educational gains in Gov. George W. Bush's state.

March 28, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Galloping gains on Texas' school achievement tests under Gov. George W. Bush have drawn national attention and prompted talk of a "Texas miracle" in public education.

But as test scores have shot upward, other educational measurements have failed to keep pace. And a growing body of research -- along with a chorus of dissenters -- is beginning to question whether overall advances in student achievement have been nearly as dramatic as advertised.

Skeptics suggest the Texas test scores have been inflated by intensive test drills, the selective exemption of disadvantaged students from the test -- and even cheating by schools and districts that want to improve their images. A University of Texas study begun last year concludes that the increases in test scores are not the result of higher levels of student learning.

Such a conclusion does not sit well with Bush, who has made education a centerpiece of his quest for the White House. Indeed, Bush administration officials staunchly defend his record -- especially educational gains made by the state's large minority population.

"In nearly every community along the 700 or 800 miles of the Rio Grande, I can show you outstanding schools that 10, even five, years ago, were not doing well," said Jim Nelson, the Texas education commissioner. "We're holding people accountable with high expectations."

The growing debate over Texas' educational gains is part of a broader argument raging nationwide over the wisdom of using standardized tests to gauge the effectiveness of education reforms. Bush might be well known for his embrace of that idea, but President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have embraced it as well.

Criticism of the movement has become such a politically delicate matter that an analysis of school achievement in Texas -- drafted by a senior researcher at the federal Education Department and obtained by The Sun -- was written under a pseudonym and has not been made public.

Researchers have put Texas under a microscope, in part, because of the volume of test score information churned out.

"Show me any other state that has this kind of powerful data that informs policy-making around student achievement," said Margaret D. La Montagne, Bush's chief education adviser. "No other state has this kind of accountability system that can shine a light on performance like ours."

The core of the accountability reforms in Texas was put in place before Bush was elected, but he has nourished and defended the system against attacks from the right and the left.

The implementation of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test began a decade ago, though it was not fully phased in until 1994, the year Bush was elected governor.

Since then, gains in TAAS test scores have been significant at every level tested. And the gains for minority students have been the most impressive.

But contrary evidence has emerged. During the same time span, scores of Texas high school students on college admissions tests have stagnated.

State officials say those numbers can be explained by the wider pool of Texans -- especially minorities -- now taking the SAT.

But the analysis of Texas achievement circulating at the Education Department questions whether the rising number of test-takers would cause the average to stall. It notes that while the number of students taking college boards has risen with population increases, the proportion of Texas high school students who take the tests has stagnated or declined since 1994.

The minimal gains in SAT scores point to a telling disparity: Students who have made striking improvements on Texas' in-state exams have failed to do so consistently on national standardized tests that compare Texans with students elsewhere.

Mixed results

Texas' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- a nationwide test administered in several subjects to a random sample of students -- have shown mixed results. The 1998 NAEP eighth-grade writing test seemed to validate the surging TAAS scores. Only Connecticut had higher average scores than Texas. And Texas' black and Hispanic students had the highest minority test scores in the nation.

Texas fourth-graders also showed remarkable gains in the 1996 NAEP math test, from 15 percent of fourth-graders deemed mathematically proficient to 25 percent. Only five states had better scores, and only North Carolina had made such striking progress.

"The NAEP scores provide pretty compelling evidence there are real score gains going on in Texas," said David Grissmer, a researcher with RAND Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., who has studied achievement gains in Texas and North Carolina.

But Texas eighth-graders lagged behind counterparts from 20 other states in math. And though they did improve, they remained below the national average. In science, Texas eighth-graders ranked 27th in the nation.

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