The Classroom Impact of TAAS

K-12 Testing

In its case against the use of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests to determine high school graduation, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) presented evidence about the educational consequences of the exams (see related story).


In one pre-trial report, Professor Linda McNeil of Rice University explained the harmful effects of TAAS test-driven curriculum and instruction on teaching and learning, particularly for Hispanic and black students. McNeil demonstrated that the quality and quantity of subjects offered is reduced as much more time is devoted to preparing students to pass the test: “TAAS drills are becoming the curriculum in our poorest schools,” she said. Schools serving middle-class, white children provide a richer and more balanced education. She continued, “The TAAS system of testing thus widens the gap between the public education provided for poor and minority children and that of the traditionally higher scoring (that is, anglo and wealthier) schools.”


This conclusion was bolstered by other trial testimony. For example, the passing-rate gap widened for one cohort of students: 26 percent fewer blacks and 24 percent fewer Hispanics than whites passed in third grade, while by tenth grade the cohort’s black-white gap was 30 percent and the Hispanic-White gap was 26 percent. Judge Prado ignored this data in his insistence on finding positive benefits to TAAS.


McNeil explained that not only is the range of subjects diminished, but those that are taught in TAAS-dominated schools are reduced to “isolated skills and fragments of fact.” This may enable students “to recognize those components on a multiple-choice test, but does not necessarily enable them to use these components in other contexts.” For example, while reading scores may go up on TAAS, “few students are able to use those same skills for actual reading.” Teaching to the TAAS means reading short passages, then answering multiple-choice questions.


In other, non-tested courses, such as science or history, McNeil reported that teachers are pressured to alter the curriculum to focus on TAAS skills. Resources are diverted from ensuring a comprehensive curriculum to test preparation. All this focus on TAAS, McNeil reported, contradicts “what is known in research on children’s learning.”


“In summary,” explained McNeil, “the TAAS is a ticket to nowhere.” Success on the test does not insure a quality education, she concluded. Instead, it damages curriculum, instruction and educational opportunity.


In another report to the court (see Examiner, Fall 1999), Professor Walt Haney of Boston College found that the high stakes attached to TAAS were leading to increased teaching to the test. In a survey of middle and high school teachers, 82 percent of respondents said, “Teachers in my district are gearing their instruction to mandated tests,” and 88 percent said teachers spend more time solving problems that are likely to appear on the test. For 73 percent, this meant more time on basic skills, while only 22 percent said the test led them to spend more time with manipulatives or experiments “for concept development.” Eighty-six percent claimed that their “district is putting pressure on teachers to improve their students’ mandated test scores,” and 64 percent said testing programs sometimes lead “teachers to teach in ways that go against their own ideals of good educational practice.” Fifty percent reported spending more than 30 hours on test preparation each year.


Haney’s research supports McNeil’s findings. There is enormous pressure to teach to the test, particularly in low-income and high-minority districts. The tests take over curriculum and instruction -- and when they do so, they dumb-down education. Rather than improve education, TAAS undermines the possibility of genuine and deep reform. The greatest price is paid by groups who historically have not had access to high quality education, thereby perpetuating race and class hierarchies in the U.S.