Achieve and their Texas Evaluation
"The Very Latest on TAAS II"
by Donna Garner
June 8, 2001
The Texas Education Agency hired an organization called Achieve, Inc. to evaluate the TAAS II objectives to see whether they are aligned to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) -- Texas' K-12 curriculum requirements approved in July 1997.
Achieve, Inc. evidently solicited the help of various reading, writing, math, social studies, and science experts from around the country. Because the TEA used public money to pay for the contract with Achieve, Inc., the evaluations are subject to the Texas Open Records Act. (The Achieve, Inc. evaluations can be obtained by calling the Texas Education Agency, Ann Smisko's office, 512-463-9734. A reproduction cost may be charged.)
The TEA has been very slow to release Achieve, Inc.'s evaluations; and to my knowledge, the Texas State Board of Education members still have not received copies of the evaluations even though the members asked for them at their May SBOE meeting.
I have been more fortunate than the SBOE members and am in possession of a complete set of all the subject-area evaluations with the list of education experts listed for each subject area. In English Language Arts, the following experts are listed
Arthur Appleby, SUNY-Albany and CELA Carol Jago, California Reading and Literature Project Susan Pimentel, Standards Work Dorothy Strickland, Rutgers University
Dorothy Strickland is a whole-language advocate and was invited by the TEA to come to Texas and facilitate the writing of the TEKS for English / Language Arts / Reading. It was people such as Ms. Strickland who successfully substituted the term "balanced approach" in place of the term "whole language" when that failed reading approach resulted in millions of poor readers across our country.
After looking over Ms. Strickland's evaluations for Achieve, Inc., I think it is safe to say that whatever amount of money she was paid for her evaluations was far too much.
Susan Pimentel's evaluations, however, are quite another matter. According to the website for Standards Work ( http://www.goalline.org ), Susan Pimentel is the Co-Founder of Standards Work, located in Hanover, New Hampshire. One could hardly say that Ms. Pimentel belongs to the conservative wing.
When the TEA asked the question of its evaluators, "Would educators, parents and students regard the test [TAAS II] expectations as 'fair-game' given the state mandates?" here is what Pimentel said on pages 3, 4, and 11 of her report
"Not necessarily. The reason is less because of the TAAS II Objectives and Student Expectations and more because of the TEKS standards themselves. Most of the standards do not, in isolation, focus classroom instruction except in the most general of ways. Content is often repeated verbatim (or so close as to mean the same thing) from one grade level to the next with little indication of increasing intellectual demand as one moves up the grades. Most standards are applicable for a grade cluster, e.g., K-3, grades 2-3, and 4-5, and often run the huge expanse of grades 3-7, 2-8, or 4-8. Rarely is a standard or test expectation grade-specific."
"As a result of many of the same standards being applicable to several grades, the TAAS II test expectations follow suit and are worded in almost identical terms grade to grade. (The test expectations for grades 4 and 5 are identical; the test expectations for grades 6, 7, and 8 are very nearly identical and differ from grades 4 and 5 only slightly, and so on it goes through the grades.) By default, test developers must take responsibility for defining just what questions are 'fair game' for a fourth grader as opposed to an eighth grader, for a fifth grader as opposed to a seventh grader, etc. That could leave students (and the teachers who must instruct them) unprepared for the demands of the test. Moreover, such vagueness can cause students to be inadequately prepared for more in-depth study later on in their school careers. Much depends on how each teacher interprets the demands."
"Because so many of the standards are the same grade level to grade level in reading, it is more critical than ever that the complexity and sophistication of what students are being asked to read be defined with precision. Generally, the rigor and comprehensiveness of English language arts standards are determined in part by the complexity and sophistication of what students are being asked to 'do' with one text or another. The complexity and sophistication of 'what' students are asked to read and comprehend is the other part of the equation. Texas teachers and students would be enormously helped if the test expectations included sample reading passages students were expected to comprehend at each grade level. In the alternative, a list of required reading, including recognized works of American, British and World literature would be an assist..."
"While most TEKS and TAAS II Student Expectations are not difficult to understand on their face, they are difficult to interpet with precision (a direct result of the vague wording and repetition of many of the standards throughout the grades.) More specificity is needed to avoid the plague of endless repetitions and to ensure comprehensive coverage of important content in Texas schools. As things stand, many of the standards and test expectations force the teacher, student, and assessment developer to guess about the parameters."
In short, Pimentel says that the problem is not with the TAAS II objectives; it is with the foundation for the TAAS II objectives -- the TEKS. Because the TEKS standards are inferior, the TAAS II objectives are inferior, and so will the TAAS II tests be inferior.
At the risk of being criticized for quoting oneself, I am attaching my commentary entitled "Teaching in Circles" which was published in the Waco Tribune-Herald on May 5, 2001. Ms. Pimentel's comments seem to mirror my own sentiments regarding the problems with the TAAS II tests. These all-important tests are quickly approaching for all our Texas public and charter-school students.
I briefly looked over Erich Martel's highly explicit and informative evaluations covering the area of social studies. Anyone who reads his evaluations will know that this individual is a genuine expert in his field. He is listed as a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, District of Columbia Public Schools. He, too, made some highly critical remarks about the TEKS standards; and it seems to me that the TEA should take Mr. Martel's comments very seriously. However, I will leave it to others to discuss the social studies, math, and science fields since those are not really my areas of expertise.
For those who have not read my article previously, I have attached it below
Waco Tribune-Herald, May 5, 2001 "Teaching in circles State plan to implement TAAS II a long way from making sense" Guest Column Donna Garner
Our Texas Legislature is debating whether to delay for one year the requirement that all students in Texas public schools in Grades 3, 5, and 8 must pass the soon-to-be-released TAAS II tests in order to be promoted. In this ongoing discussion, the Legislators frequently use the term "grade-level work."
Since the entire foundation for a child's academic success is determined by his ability to read and communicate, the most important course that is taught in our schools is English / Language Arts / Reading (ELAR). Here is the problem in Texas Nobody knows for sure what "grade-level work" means because our Texas curriculum standards (TEKS) do not specify a set of exact goals which are assigned to each grade level. (Go to www.tea.state.tx.us and see for yourself how many of the standards are cut/copied/pasted year after year.) The TAAS II tests are to be built upon these repetitious TEKS standards.
School districts are spending thousands of dollars to hire curriculum directors whose job is to align the curriculum (set grade-by-grade goals) to the TEKS and consequently, to the TAAS II tests. How can a person align something to a line that goes around in circles? Since almost the very same TEKS goals are set for three or four grade levels in a row (K-3, 4-8, and 9-12), how can a parent know whether his child is on grade level? Who is to say what grade level really is? To what standard does a parent compare his child when the goals are the same for multiple grade levels? This situation reminds me of a four-way intersection where nobody knows which car has the right-of-way, and everybody sits there waiting for someone else to proceed first.
To make matters more confusing, the TEKS elements are so numerous that teachers do not have time to teach all of them in a year's time. Of necessity, teachers are forced to make a choice about which elements they should teach at their particular grade level. What happens to the poor child whose teacher guesses wrong? What happens if the child fails the TAAS II because his teacher was a poor guesser? This is not a happy thought for the unfortunate child who will be held back for a year because of failing the TAAS II.
Ideally it would be wonderful if every child did "grade-level work," but we adults had better clearly define the exact goals which need to be met at each grade level before we expect students to master them. We can hardly expect children to hit the bullseye when the target is not clearly marked.
May I humbly offer an obvious suggestion? Let's insist that the education community get its act together first before we require students to participate in a frustrating game of shadow-boxing on the TAAS II.
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