AUSTIN – Texas high school students have a year before they must begin to pass a battery of 12 end-of-course tests to graduate, but results for hundreds of thousands of students already taking some of the exams portend a rocky start for the new testing program.
Of the nearly 102,000 students who took the Algebra I test in May, for example, just 57 percent met the passing standard on the 50-question exam. Only 12 percent achieved "commended performance" for correctly answering most of the items.
Results were similar on the six other end-of-course tests administered in hundreds of school districts across the state. Some that were required to give the exams so the state could gauge the early performance, while others voluntarily tested their students to get a leg up on the new requirement.
There was no passing rate on the other exams, but the Texas Education Agency has compiled data indicating how well students did – basically the average number of test questions that students correctly answered in each subject. Among the results:
•On the biology test, taken by more than 152,000 students in 644 school districts, the average percentage of correct answers was 57 percent. The questions covered a range of topics, including evolution, genetics, ecosystems and energy.
•In geometry, more than 137,000 students in 641 districts were tested, with the average student getting 52 percent of the questions correct. On items about geometric patterns, black students got only 39 percent correct, and Hispanics 43 percent.
•Students answered fewer than half the questions correctly in chemistry (46 percent) and more than half in U.S. history (54 percent). They did better in physics, with an average of 58 percent.
•The one test on which students did shine was world geography, with an average score of 82 percent. Those questions covered not only geography, but also culture, government, economics and current events.
Teacher groups said the scores are another indication that the state is putting too much emphasis on high-stakes testing.
"We are certainly concerned about the impact on students and those who are now on the bubble as far as graduation," said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association.
But one of the lawmakers who led the push to convert to end-of-course tests said the scores aren't a concern, pointing out the new tests are more rigorous than the single high school graduation test students have been taking for several years.
"The initial results are not a shock," said state Rep. Rob Eissler, chairman of the House education committee. "We're trying to raise the level of performance in each of those subjects, and we first have to find out where everybody is."
Under a student testing law passed by the Legislature in 2007, high school students will take the 12 end-of-course tests instead of the TAKS, submitting to three exams each in English, math, science and social studies. Students will be required to achieve a passing average on the three tests in each subject area to earn a high school diploma – with exams given near the end of the school year in May.
A student could get a poor grade on some of the tests as long as he or she did well enough on the others. But the two college readiness exams – Algebra II and English III – will have to be passed by students in the "recommended" and "distinguished achievement" diploma plans. Those in the minimum plan will not have to pass both tests but will need a passing average in each subject area.
In addition to determining whether a student graduates, the new exams also will count 15 percent toward the final grade in each subject. The exams will be required beginning with incoming high school freshmen in the 2011-12 school year.
Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said the outgoing TAKS graduation test "looked back" and asked questions about subjects most students had taken a few years earlier.
By contrast, the end-of-course exams are "current" and contain items that are "fresh on kids' minds" because they are given at the end of the course being tested. "When you failed the TAKS, it was often hard to pinpoint the problem. But with an [end of course] exam, you can tell right away if there's a problem."
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, who led the testing bill through the Senate, said she was encouraged by the large number of districts using one or more of the end-of-course tests before the requirement goes into effect in the 2011-12 school year.
"The test doesn't count for anything now, so it's kind of a free shot for districts to see what it looks like and how well their students can do," said Shapiro, R-Plano.
And while the initial scores are "not that good," she noted: "It is giving schools a sampling of what to expect in the future in the testing program." She also predicted more districts will jump on board this school year and begin using some or all of the tests that are available.
Who was tested
More than 60 percent of the state's 1,030 school districts gave the biology test to at least some of their high school students. More than half used the chemistry and geometry tests. The Algebra I test was given in 425 districts.
In the Dallas district, 28 schools participated.
All districts had the option of using any of the end-of-course exams as part of the final grade for each student taking one of the tests. TEA officials could not say how many did so.
While seven of the tests have been developed so far, two others – English I and Algebra II – were field-tested this spring and will be available for schools in the spring of 2011. Three other exams – English II and III, and world history – will be field-tested at selected schools next spring, and be made available a year later.
Field testing allows developers of an exam to refine its questions and discard those that most students cannot answer.
HOW TESTS WILL BE PHASED IN Under a 2007 state law, the single TAKS graduation test will be replaced by 12 end-of-course exams beginning in the 2011-12 school year. There will be three tests each in algebra, English, science and social studies. Here's how the tests will be phased in over several school years: Grade 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15
Ninth TAKS EOC EOC EOC EOC
10th TAKS TAKS EOC EOC EOC
11th TAKS TAKS TAKS EOC EOC
12th TAKS TAKS TAKS TAKS EOC
TEST RESULTS SO FAR
Here's a look at how many students in Texas' 1,030 school districts have taken end-of-course exams so far:
Algebra I 425 101,887 57%*
Biology 644 152,247 57%
Chemistry 587 129,070 46%
Geometry 641 137,617 52%
Physics 238 25,241 58%
U.S. history 232 37,349 54%
World geography 361 89,314 82%
* For Algebra I only, this is percentage of students who passed test.
SOURCE: Texas Education Agency DALLAS-AREA DISTRICTS THAT GAVE NEW TESTS