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Struggling With State Exams, Students Still Advance to Next Grade

Most of the fifth- and eighth-graders who failed their state reading and math exams will likely move on to the next grade anyway.

A reading assistant reads on the classroom floor with a small group of fourth graders at Wanke Elementary School in San Antonio on March 9, 2012.

More than 100,000 fifth- and eighth-graders failed the state exams in reading and math that are required to move on to the next grade last year.

Most of them probably advanced anyway.

State law bans social promotion, or the practice of allowing students to continue to the next grade regardless of their academic achievement. But few of the students who failed the test will actually repeat a grade because a provision in the law allowing local school officials to ignore exam performance after consulting with teachers and parents.

In the 2012-13 school year, the most recently available retention data, about 1.5 percent of fifth-graders and 1 percent of eighth-graders were held back in the 2013 school year. As many as 9 percent failed either their reading or math exams.

This year, another factor is also at play. In late August, Michael Williams, the Texas education commissioner, announced that because the state was moving to a new math curriculum, he would waive the requirement that fifth- and eighth-grade students pass their math exams to advance.

Citing the “substantial challenges” associated with implementation of the new math standards, he advised administrators to use other “relevant academic information” to make promotion decisions in math.

The disconnect between passing rates and retention highlights the tension between preventing a single test from controlling a student’s future while still ensuring students have learned the skills needed to advance to the next grade. When students are held back, they can face a higher risk of dropping out because of factors like lacking social engagement. But as students continue through the education system without mastering the fundamental concepts, their academic struggles often escalate.

Educators largely praise a flexible, individualized approach to student promotion.  They also warn against leaning too heavily on standardized tests.

“We have to just be cautious in how we interpret exams results. This is one assessment on one day,” said Mary Ellen Isaacs, the director of A Community for Education, a literacy intervention program that operates at 30 elementary schools in Central Texas.

But with reading, Isaacs said that if students are unable to catch up with their peers even as early as the third grade, it usually means much more expensive and intensive interventions are in order.

“It’s not that it’s impossible,” she said. “It just takes a much larger investment of resources because the curriculum is marching along every day, and balancing the fact that students are needing to take in all this information every day with the need of catching up.”

Wrapped up in the challenge is also a renewed debate among policy makers about whether the state’s three-year-old assessment system adequately tracks academic achievement at all.

When Williams announced his decision in August to waive the requirement that students pass the math test to advance, it came after the state had also delayed a planned phase-in of higher passing standards on standardized exams because scores had failed to improve at the anticipated rate.

After the changes, he faced a series of questions at a legislative hearing from lawmakers about how parents and educators should interpret the results.

“It almost looks as like we’re not testing what’s being taught or we’re not teaching what’s being tested,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo.

At one point, Williams gave an alternative interpretation.

“I’m not going to say it’s blame, but I am going to say that it is a function of instruction not rising to the level to provide that kind of learning,” he said. “We have moved the bar significantly higher than it has ever been, and the system needs time to catch up.” 

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