Teaching the Test in Texas
December 3, 2003 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Teaching the Test
As a student at Jefferson Davis High here, Rosa Arevelo seemed the "Texas miracle" in motion. After years of classroom drills, she passed the high school exam required for graduation on her first try. A program of college prep courses earned her the designation "Texas scholar." At the University of Houston, though, Ms. Arevelo discovered the distance between what Texas public schools called success and what she needed to know. Trained to write five-paragraph "persuasive essays" for the state exam, she was stumped by her first writing assignment. She failed the college entrance exam in math twice, even with a year of remedial algebra. At 19, she gave up and went to trade school.

This doesn't look good for our new, unfunded, "Leave No Child Behind" education bill. Smells like another bait and switch to me.
posted by nofundy (31 comments total)
At one level (national) we are now told that our educational system is in shambles. Often the unions blamed. Now we discover that Texas is found wanting and thus Leave no Kid behind a fake. (it is a fake because moneies for education fudning dropping consderably.)

Just tow points: all schools I know of teach for the test to be taken (Regents, say, in NY), and the 5-paragraph essays a standard that is used in lots of schools. If this one poor girl used as an example learned the 5-part-essay but failed because that is not what college students were tested for, what exactly was given instead? Pehaps the writer for the Times ought to take a test or two.
posted by Postroad at 8:40 AM on December 3, 2003

Last summer, Ms. Arevelo tutored her youngest daughter, 10-year-old Angelica, in spelling. Because the state exam does not test spelling, Angelica's teacher never got to it, Ms. Arevelo said one recent afternoon.
posted by anastasiav at 8:46 AM on December 3, 2003

Patricia Anderson, a veteran social studies teacher in Houston, said she was not surprised. Noticing that her high school students could not answer questions after reading passages in their textbooks, she began giving them a vocabulary test at the fourth grade level. Typically, she said, "They flunk it."

Let's see, a poor school system, parents who don't have the resources to compensate for it, plus kids who don't do any reading on their own - yes, this leads to disaster.
posted by orange swan at 8:47 AM on December 3, 2003

Disaster? Hell no. This is all Clinton's fault. No way can you blame it on George. He's doin' a fine job for us. Hell, 61% of dumbassess approve of George, so back off. He's the education president after all.
posted by damnitkage at 9:12 AM on December 3, 2003

Whoa. I learned, was drilled endlessly on, and was tested on the 5-paragraph essay in 8th grade. Why are they still doing this in high school?
posted by beth at 9:14 AM on December 3, 2003

I went to middle and high school in a North Houston school district (Humble ISD) that wasn't then, but is now, inside the Houston city limits. The article seems to treat education in Houston as a single entity rather than a collection of independent school districts. Not counting Houston ISD, there are about a half-dozen other districts scattered around the city (although I can't say for sure where each one falls city limits-wise.) I'm curious if the data they sampled was just from HISD or from all of the districts in and around the city.

I can honestly say that I was never taught for any test. The closest we ever came was when the topic of the "Don't open that part of your test booklet yet!" essay question leaked the day before we took that part of the test and a teacher told us we would be fools not to prep for it. But no "we have to drill you on this because the TAAS is coming up" or anything like that. Maybe I just got lucky and got out before all the accountability crap started in 1993.
posted by Cyrano at 9:15 AM on December 3, 2003

Although I wouldn't be surprised if these problems were systemwide, it feels more like anectdotal evidence from Houston alone. It's been going on for a few years in Texas, are there any real stats on the whole system that point to these sorts of problems? Why the focus just on Houston?
posted by mathowie at 9:19 AM on December 3, 2003

Perhaps the test is not all that difficult to pass in the first place.
posted by mischief at 9:34 AM on December 3, 2003

For the benefit of people outside Texas (and the US), what is the 5 paragraph essay test? To my ears, it sounds awfully lame for (presumably) final year high school students to be taking.
posted by adrianhon at 9:45 AM on December 3, 2003

No one in the history of the world ever thought that teaching students to pass a single test was the best way to educate them or teach them to think and be successful at a wide range of tasks in their future lives.

For those who advocate and implement such systems, it's all about the money. Judge them accordingly.
posted by rushmc at 9:47 AM on December 3, 2003

Teaching material very specifically tailored for tests is very problematic. It reminds me of my several years' work in literacy. We were government-funded, and the government each student required each student to have a learning plan with specific "learning outcomes". We were supposed to get the students to pick a career goal (hairdresser, mechanic, landscaper, whatever) and then tailor their course of study to that. It was bullshit. Learning doesn't work that way, especially not when it's basic education involving reading, writing and math. You learn skills and then you can apply them to whatever you want to do in life. It was condescending, too - a landscaper is only to read about plants?
posted by orange swan at 9:50 AM on December 3, 2003

If this one poor girl used as an example learned the 5-part-essay but failed because that is not what college students were tested for, what exactly was given instead? Pehaps the writer for the Times ought to take a test or two.

That's what I'm wondering. I remember my required freshmen rhetoric class really didn't need more than your standard 5 part essay (adapted, of course, to each individual assignment) to get an A. I doubt all of a sudden that they're requiring a doctoral thesis to be written freshmen year. The underlying problem probably isn't the 5-part essay but not knowing how to adapt from good high school writing and good college writing, which many new college students go through, not just the unprepared ones.
posted by gyc at 10:08 AM on December 3, 2003

For a much longer discussion on the detestable (oops, reflexive English teacher editorializing) five-paragraph essay, check this out:
posted by kozad at 10:17 AM on December 3, 2003

LOL. man that thing is dumb.

The more I read about the "5pe" the more I laugh. Inductive vs. deductive logic anyone?
posted by tiamat at 10:42 AM on December 3, 2003

I used to teach remedial writing and reading at the college level, as well as freshman-level composition courses. Each college had remedial programs for English and math courses, with full labs and separate staff, so this is clearly not a unique problem.

Last night, a friend in a master's program asked me last night to review an essay he was writing--the usual literary analysis required by so many professors. I was struck by the contrived nature of most academic writing, whether five paragraphs or fifty. So I'm curious--what do people think is the value of essay writing? The research skills? The analysis? The slavish attention to detail in formatting one's citations? Construction of an argument? How many of you who aren't writers have written an essay of any form for a work-related purpose since graduating? What would you suggest as alternative teaching and testing methods?
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 11:05 AM on December 3, 2003

Sometimes teaching to the test isn't enough. Sometimes teachers and administrators cheat as well.

Oh then figuring out the dropout rate is contentious as well.

And last but not least, the "robin hood" [method of having rich school districts pay for poorer districts] scheme is under review.

Education governor my ass.
posted by birdherder at 11:17 AM on December 3, 2003

OSM, the goal of the 5PE is a sound one- to allow someone to communicate a point of argument well. State your position, offer supporting evidence, summarize and reinforce. It's a basic and effective didactic method.

Unfortunately, our statistics-obsessed society has chosen to focus on the methodology to the exclusion of the goal- I always remember being graded more on structure than content. Hence, we train people to write something that is, perhaps, structurally sound, yet rhetorically vacant.
posted by mkultra at 11:29 AM on December 3, 2003

So I'm curious--what do people think is the value of essay writing? The research skills? The analysis? The slavish attention to detail in formatting one's citations? Construction of an argument? How many of you who aren't writers have written an essay of any form for a work-related purpose since graduating? What would you suggest as alternative teaching and testing methods?

Essay writing is important for a lot of reasons: to be able to find out important information about a topic, even one you may not like a lot; to think and form thoughts/arguments that others find coherent; to convey information to others.

These are skills you need to so much as write a business letter. "Why I feel your company owes me a refund" is a very good essay topic. A lawyer's closing arguments is an essay entitled "Why the defendant should/shouldn't go to jail." An entrepreneur's business plan contains essay elements, including citations of relevant data. A techician's or engineer's "white paper" on a topic of expertise or a product he/she has worked on is an essay. A good blog entry or MeFi post could be a short essay. Essays are everywhere, we just don't call them essays. Oh yeah, and they don't necessarily have 5 paragraphs. Maybe you would find such real-life essay topics more useful than "Discuss the use of symbolism in Hemingway's short stories."

And yes, I have written many essays for work. I am a research analyst. My job is to find out what my client wants to know, including all the picky little details, tell them what I found, and tell them what conclusions I came to regarding the information.
posted by ilsa at 11:41 AM on December 3, 2003

Matt- It seems to be Houston specific because of "The claims catapulted Houston's superintendent, Rod Paige, to Washington as education secretary and made Texas a model for the country." Also because of Bush and No Child Left Behind.

Texas HS exit exam brief history: TEAMS --> TAAS --> TASS2 --> TAKS (which builds on TEKS).
I took TEAMS (in 90), but I do not even remember it. I remember studying for the SAT and ACT.
Texas College entrance exam began in 90 with TASP (Reading, Writing, Math) --> THEA. This is required for attending any Texas State college/university, including junior colleges.

I always took it as common knowledge that if you do not do well in "real" college to go to a junior college. It costs less, classes transfer to a 4 year (most of the time if they are core classes), and it is a good place to get acclimated from HS to a 4 year. It might seem like a step backwards, but you are better for it.
I attended 5 different Texas colleges, and I have worked in 2 other Texas Colleges. All in North Texas except 1 sort of near Houston in Galveston. I have always been amazed at how students have passed the entrance exam. Then they do not understand the course work, yet they are passed with a C. It seemed like HS all over again, push them through the system. You really had to try to get an F.
posted by sailormouth at 11:56 AM on December 3, 2003

Let's be sure of what the problem is...

Parents demand accountability and metrics to measure that their children are learning.

As if report cards are good enough. Which they aren't because schoold that have a high failure rate are viewed as 'bad' (as opposed to critcally assessing the skills of the students and leaving abck those who don't match).

Those scores were based on subjective and objective measurement of a student's ability.

But we, as parents (well, I never did, since I think standardized test are dumb) clamor for a way to properly measure all students the same.

The only way is standardized tests.

The best way to get funding and high marks as a school is to have a high percentage of students passing the test.

So, teach to the test.

Teach the 'Kaplan'-like ways to do well on tests without really knowing the answers.

You don't leave any time in the curiculum to teach critical thinking, problem solving, or go into nuances such as thematic teaching, or specific historical points that aren't mandated, but still have relevance to current events.

Then parents complain that their children aren't prepared for the world.

School boards are useless. You should have administrators and teachers running the school and curriculum. Administrators should have budgetary repsonsibility and accountability to how money is spent. We shouldn't have standardized tests, or we end up following the Japanese example of rigid education structure where you get put on a track by the time you're entering high school.

(end rant)
posted by rich at 12:07 PM on December 3, 2003

What birdherder said. And I agree with sailormouth that this seems to be Texas specific, this time.
Playing with the school system for personal political advancement is screwing the kids.
Public education is just another one of those commie socialist government programs that needs destroyed, correct, Grover Norquist?
I'm certain someone will eventually point out this is all the NEA's fault and not the Texas pols. Damn teachers and their unions!
posted by nofundy at 12:28 PM on December 3, 2003

Another big problem with the act that it requires 99% to reach grade level in reading or math including special education and English as a Secondary Language students. While people like to gripe about public schools, I suspect that there may be a backlash as they are taken over.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:02 PM on December 3, 2003

This is all the NEA's fault. Damn teachers and their unions.

The damn teachers won't do their jobs, so the pols have to institute the tests to make sure that the teachers do their jobs.
Then the teachers try to teach to the test, but they can't do that right either.

With vouchers, simple market economics would permit schools to do a better job to compete for the tax dollars.

Is that what you are looking for nofundy?

Now, lets see how you dispute it.

Personally, I don't think the politicians or the school teachers are doing anything wrong. I think nature is to blame.
I went to public school in Texas (Plano), and it educated me well enough to allow me to go to a top 10 private university and to a top tier law school. Was it the public school education? Probably not. Probably because my parents are well-educated, so genetics and the condition of my raising permitted me to do well.

Kids from lower income families and bad neighborhoods with parents who aren't educated probably won't be going to Harvard. That isn't the politicians fault. That is just the way it is. Where the politicians and the school teachers do come in helpful, is providing the girl with minimum skills. Minimum skills are not skills that allow you to go to college and get good grades. Mimimum skills are life skills, which permit you to make a living. I think this girl in the article has those skills, and it seems like it is to benefit of school that she does.
posted by Seth at 1:19 PM on December 3, 2003

Testing has become the mantra for the British system, as well. Test 'em at 7, 11, 14 and give them exams at 16. As if passing the driving test made you a good driver.

Kids from lower income families and bad neighborhoods with parents who aren't educated probably won't be going to Harvard. That isn't the politicians fault. That is just the way it is.

Shouldn't be, though. At least, I'm guessing that Harvard offers more economic and cultural barriers to entry than the best universities in Britain.
posted by riviera at 4:17 PM on December 3, 2003

The only statistically significant correlation between standardized tests and anything is that kids who have higher family incomes do better. That's it. They don't mean you did better in school, they don't mean you WILL do better in school and they don't mean you know more [or less] than other kids. It's sad but true. However it's been decided that this is the only solution to what's broken with the school system and I think that's a damned shame. Here in Vermont we have weird troubles because some of the class sizes are so small, having one kid in a grade fail will drop the school below the mandated pass rate and get the school in trouble. One kid. And that's whether or not that kid wants to go to college, be a farmer, join the army, or whatever.

In California, where students are blessed with the CA HSEE, people sued over the test being mandatory for graduation in 2004. The reasoning was that the tests were made mandatory after some kids had already passed the grades where they would have learned the stuff that was on the test [9th grade algebra, for example] So, all of California has a two year reprieve and all kids [save 5% that are disabled AND non-English speakers and get to take a different test] who are now CA sophmores must pass the test or they don't graduate.

ETS's solution? Not surprisingly "teach to the test" You'd cry if you saw some of the essays these kids write. On the other hand kids still aren't passing these tests well enough or in high enough percentages. The test is being "streamlined" You might recall when this happened to the SAT a ways back and the headlines read "Standardized Tests Dumbed Down!!"

Disclaimer: I score tests for ETS. I used to work for Princeton Review. I write textbooks. I didn't read the whole article.
posted by jessamyn at 4:56 PM on December 3, 2003

This is my 2nd year teaching College Writing at a big state university (yes, in Texas) as a TA and I am constantly amazed by how plain uninformed and badly prepared these kids are. My favorite 5 paragraph essay anecdote: the student who thought ALL essays could only be 5 paragraphs, so when assigned a 5-page paper, simply wrote a paragraph per page. Kids today, etc., etc. All my kids hate TAAS passionately after a few weeks in college, when they begin to realize how screwed they are.
posted by anyasar at 5:02 PM on December 3, 2003

I always thought (and was taught) that the 5 paragraph essay was intended to be just a stepping stone to larger non-fiction written works.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:00 PM on December 3, 2003

I remember writing many a five-page paper in high school, let alone university, where they were usually about ten pages.
posted by orange swan at 6:53 AM on December 4, 2003

The Texas program of teaching to a test starts much, much earlier than high school now. Since Bush was governor here, they've started teaching to a test at 3rd grade. In my neighborhood, there are 11 teachers who teach at the grade school, middle school and high school that surround our little enclave. Every single one of them, most of them career teachers with a serious desire to teach, are talking about quitting and going into another field because they aren't allowed to teach anymore. They're handed a 3-ring binder of "knowledge" that the kids have to memorize before the testing begins.

Our area pays some of the highest taxes in the state, but our school is poorly funded, poorly equipped and doesn't even come close to teaching anything that vaguely approaches actual learning.

If, gods forbid, we're still here when my son reaches school age, there is almost zero chance that I'll enroll him in a public school. I'll either send him to parochial school or to an academy, or consider homeschooling. (Although I'd prefer he learn socialization skills that can only be learned by being with other kids.) But under no conditions will I consider allowing him into the testing-mill that Bush's policies have made the schools here.

I've been tutoring some of the kids in this area...and I'm astounded by high school kids that don't know basic grammar, English, math or science. All they know is how to pick the most likely correct answer on a bubble sheet. It's disgusting.
posted by dejah420 at 7:11 AM on December 5, 2003

dejah, socialization is highy overrated.

Think about it: in school you are expected to get along with people almost exactly your age. When you grow up you are expected to get along with everyone, regardless of age.

If you homeschool, just make sure they have adequate outside activities, such as scouts, gymnastics, combined classes with other homeschoolers, or whatever groups they are interested in. Not only is it socialization, it helps maintain your sanity.

No, I am not homeschooling. Yes, I thought about it seriously and did the research.
posted by ilsa at 8:19 PM on December 5, 2003

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