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Students get days off for passing TAKS

Modest Proposal: Administer the TAAS the first day of school. Those who pass don't have to attend school for the rest of the year, leaving teachers free to spend their time giving test prep to the rest.

By Eric Dexheimer

Students who took TAKS tests earlier this month in the tiny Priddy Independent School District west of Waco are hoping to earn its top prize: Getting out of school for the summer 10 days earlier than their classmates.

"We feel our students need to be rewarded for performing well," said Adrianne Klein, principal of the 92-student district.

While most students who take the state's standardized tests this spring might dream of the usual rewards for earning high or passing scores ΓΆ€” pats on the back, commendations at school assemblies, an occasional gift certificate to a restaurant ΓΆ€” an increasing number have a new kind of incentive being dangled in front of them: more days off from school.

Over the past two years, a growing number of Texas school districts, most of them in rural areas, have picked up on a state education program designed to help student underachievers. But instead they are using it primarily to reward students who perform well on ΓΆ€” or, in some cases, simply pass ΓΆ€” the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills with excused absences.

Texas Education Agency officials said that's not how the Optional Flexible Year Program was supposed to work. "I don't think it was intended to be used as a reward to students for doing well on tests," said Lisa Dawn-Fisher, the agency's deputy associate commissioner for school finance.

Approved by the Legislature in 2003, the program lets districts petition the agency for a waiver of the state-mandated 180 days of classroom instruction. The idea was to permit schools to release some students from class for up to 10 days a year so teachers could concentrate on intense work with students who need remedial help, particularly in preparing for TAKS.

The number of districts using the waiver, which exempts them from the usual loss of state money for student absences, has exploded over the past two years. From 2004 to 2007, about 25 districts each year requested and were granted the waiver, according to the TEA. The number jumped to 58 last year and 148 this year.

The agency said it doesn't track how the schools use the program. But Dawn-Fisher said that based on what she's been hearing across the state, she suspects the use of it to reward students who pass the TAKS with days off is a reason for the increase. Rather than scheduling days off primarily to prepare at-risk students for the TAKS, some districts are stressing the free days as an enticement for higher-performing students.

Not everyone thinks rewarding achievement with a free pass out of the learning environment is the best approach. "Just exactly what we need: less time in school," said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who has sponsored a bill that would diminish the importance of the TAKS test.

Several other bills filed in the Legislature would modify standardized testing.

The Tornillo Independent School District, near El Paso, has rewarded TAKS achievers with trips to Hawaii and Colorado. But Superintendent Paul Vranish said he would never use days off to inspire students.

"Why would you ever send a message to a kid that it's a good idea to not attend school?" he asked. "It is not a reward to miss school. School is fun. School is your ticket for a good, happy life."

'We've lost sight'

Critics say the high-stakes reward programs are the latest symptom of a system that places make-or-break importance on standardized tests. "We've formulated an accountability system that stresses this one test," Shapiro said. "We've lost sight of what's important."

Shapiro's bill would de-emphasize the test in several ways, such as removing the requirement that students in third, fifth and eighth grade pass the TAKS in order to be promoted, allowing a more broad-based assessment of a student's learning instead. "TAKS has evolved into something no one thought it would in 2003," she said.

Meanwhile, students' performance on the tests remains of vital importance to Texas educators. Schools whose students perform poorly can face closure, while those that do well can collect thousands of dollars in incentive payments. The Legislature has allotted more than $200 million annually to reward teachers, districts and administrators who can show they've boosted performance.

The strategy of rewarding children with prizes for things once taken for granted ΓΆ€” attending school, taking tests and doing well on them ΓΆ€” has taken on a new urgency as schools struggle to motivate students. The increasing application of private-sector business practices to public education has also contributed to the trend.

Rep. Joe Deshotel, R-Beaumont, recently introduced a bill that would pay ninth-graders in struggling schools $50 for each "A," $35 for a "B" and $20 for a "C." Advance Placement Strategies, a Dallas nonprofit group, pays participating students who excel on their Advanced Placement exams $100 to $500 for each passing score.

School districts often claim their reward programs pump up scores and participation. In the past two years, the $110,000 that Advance Placement Strategies has distributed to Austin high school students has resulted in higher test scores at four of the five schools in the program, said Bergeron Harris, the district's assistant superintendent for educational support services.

But broader research has yielded more mixed results. While some national studies have shown improvement, others have suggested that in the long run, pay for performance can hurt learning.

With no clear direction, districts must feel their way. The Crockett County Consolidated Common School District, based in Ozona, about 80 miles southwest of San Angelo, has been debating starting a high-stakes TAKS reward program. Superintendent Abe Gott said the district has struggled with the concept ΓΆ€” "Life doesn't throw you a reward every time you do something right," he said ΓΆ€” as well as the cost of Tornillo-like trips, estimated at $100,000 a year.

Besides, Gott added, "When everyone's gone to the Grand Canyon, that stops being a reward. What next? You have to decide whether you want to cross that line."

'Fantastic Fridays'

Mason district Superintendent Matt Underwood said he had similar doubts. But after glowing reports about the flexible scheduling program at a Texas Business-Education Coalition awards banquet, Mason started a program two years ago.

Some districts have used the Optional Flexible Year Program to emphasize remedial instruction, as intended. Sterling City, between San Angelo and Midland, schedules six days off in the spring to correspond with preparation for the TAKS testing days. "We don't look at this so much as rewarding students with a day off as a way to help those students most in need," Superintendent Ronnie Krejci said.

Yet other districts have approached the program from the opposite side, making the rewards the primary focus. The Comanche district, between Abilene and Waco, rewards students who pass all their TAKS tests with 10 days' early release in May ΓΆ€” a strategy the TEA's Dawn-Fisher called "counterproductive."

Comanche hasn't seen any appreciable jump in scores, but Superintendent Rick Howard said the prospect of early dismissal at least "has impressed upon the kids the importance of the test. Before, they were just bubbling Christmas tree shapes on the answer sheet."

Mason, about 35 miles west of Llano, lets students in good standing who pass the TAKS out of school for the three days before Thanksgiving. Though it's months before TAKS preparation begins, "it gives you a full week at Thanksgiving, which is a big hunting week," Underwood said.

The superintendent said the days off appear to have worked for everyone. The less crowded classrooms seem to make students left behind more willing to participate in discussions. Between 2006 and 2008, Mason's state rating climbed from acceptable to recognized.

The Anderson-Shiro district, near College Station, is in the second year of its "Fantastic Fridays" program, which gives TAKS passers the chance to earn 10 Fridays off throughout the year while those at risk of failing study in school. Superintendent Fred Brent said the district's commended scores, those above 2,400, versus the 2,100 necessary to meet the standard, have soared 50 percent. "It tells me a lot of our kids weren't trying their hardest," he said.

In late February, Brent hosted representatives from five other districts interested in installing Fantastic Fridays. "What high school students in particular want more than anything is time," he said. "This is not a lot of fluff or hype: If you do well, you get 10 free days."

San Saba Superintendent Leigh Ann Glaze said her district is implementing a time-off program that she hopes will also take into account attendance and classroom grades. In the past, she said, the district has rewarded top achievers with gift cards to Sonic and pep rallies.

"But they're becoming immune to those incentives," Glaze said. "Whatever it takes to get them to class and get them to pass."

— Eric Dexheimer
Austin American-Statesman
2009-03-17


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