This is one in a series of occasional stories based on the records in our Public Schools Explorer.
When Texas administers the last round of TAKS exams to 11th graders in April, it will mark the end of a 10-year period that saw the state’s public school students’ scores on the standardized tests soar.
In 2012, students nailed their 11th grade state exit exams in math and English — more than 90 percent of them passed both subjects. That was true for only about 70 percent when the state first transitioned to the new assessment system in 2003. Widely praised by state education officials, the progress appears in advances on measures closely connected to the state scores, like high school graduation rates and the percentage of students who meet the state’s college ready standards.
But the success students have found on state standardized tests in the last decade did not translate to similar improvement on national measures. Performance on the ACT and SAT, the college admissions exams administered to most high school students in the state, has either flatlined or dropped. Modest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which evaluates samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students across the country to provide side-by-side comparisons among states, have not matched their skyrocketing scores on the state standardized tests.
State and national exams are designed to measure different kinds of student achievement, so some variation in scores should be expected, said Timothy Jones, an education professor at Sam Houston State University. But from a policy standpoint, he said, the conflicting reports on student achievement offered by state and national exams posed the “$64,000 dollar question.”
The TAKS exams gauge mastery of Texas curriculum standards; the national assessments focus on higher order thinking skills like problem solving and reading comprehension.
“If our state curriculum is what it should be, and students are doing better on it during this course of 10 years, then why is it that they aren't also doing better on these national measures?” he said.
Contrast performance on the 11th grade state exams with that on the college admissions exams. Last year, Texas students’ SAT scores decreased by about 5 points across the board from 2011 in reading, math and writing, continuing a downward trend of the past five years. ACT scores showed an incremental improvement from 20.1 in 2004 to 20.5.
On the SAT, last year’s high school seniors lagged behind the national average on each of the math, verbal and writing portions of the test — in the latter two subjects by almost 20 points. With average scores of 470 in reading, 496 in math and 456 in writing, most Texas students also failed to meet the state’s "college-ready" standards on the exam, which the Texas Education Agency sets at a score of 500 or above in each section.
On the ACT, 24 percent of the class of 2012 met the College Board’s “college ready” benchmarks in English, reading, math and science, according to a report released in August. That figure, just below the national average of 25 percent, has remained the same since 2010.
A similar pattern holds true on the NAEP, where Texas students’ scores remain below the national average in all subjects except fourth- and eighth-grade math. On state tests, however, students’ passing rates climbed to 89 and 86 percent in fourth-grade math and reading and 80 and 89 percent, respectively, in those subjects in eighth grade.
State education officials attribute the sluggish improvement on national exams to a larger number of students opting to take them, in the case of the college admissions tests, and to the state’s increasing percentage of economically disadvantaged and minority students.
“We are clearly building a college-going culture in Texas. The increased minority participation is important to the health of this state because of our changing demographics,” Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said in a statement announcing the SAT scores in September.
The participation rates of black and Hispanic students, both groups that on average tend to underperform on the exams compared with their peers, have both increased in Texas by about 15 percentage points on college entrance exams since 2004. In that period, the overall percentage of students taking the exams has grown from 61 to 76 percent.
Jones said that while the idea that scores hadn’t improved because more students were taking the exam had “some validity,” it did not fully explain the stagnation.
“That's all good data to process," he said, "but the truth of the matter is, it's a crutch when we start talking about that's the reason we aren't improving."
Until students spend more time in the classroom learning how to understand and find information on their own rather than memorizing straight facts, he said, that improvement was unlikely to occur.
“We are probably not cracking that nut as well as we are the nut of teaching the state curriculum. We are still teaching too much stuff as opposed to teaching kids how to think and process. That's what those national measures test,” he said.
The STAAR exams, the next generation of state standardized tests that students in third through ninth grade began taking last spring, are intended to encourage the teaching of those higher order skills while still aligning with the Texas curriculum. A debate is currently raging at the Legislature about how those exams should factor into graduation requirements — and how many of them students should take — but nearly all sides agree that the new regime is better at measuring classroom success than the TAKS.
While student performance almost always drops when the state rolls out a new assessment system, scores on the first round of STAAR exams indicate challenges ahead. If the state hadn’t delayed implementation of passing standards for the first year, 46 percent of ninth grade students would have passed their reading exams — the year before, on the TAKS, 89 percent did. In Algebra I, 39 percent would have — the year before, on the TAKS, 72 percent did.
Other stories in our Beyond the Data series have looked at how many Texas students are dropping out of high school, how much schools are spending per student, and trends in school district staffing. For more data, check out our Public Schools Explorer.