In January 1993, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), in collaboration with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), began a project designed to address the needs of secondary school students who did not pass the state minimum competency test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).
The long-range purpose of this project, Project Pathways, is to create a school staff development program that can play pivotal role in addressing the academic needs of students unable to perform successfully on the TAAS. Texas is in critical need of such a program, since poor student performance on the TAAS is a growing problem. In the spring 1993 administration of the TAAS, 78,979 11th-grade students participated, and 50,303 of them (68.7%) failed the test. An additional 13,377 students failed the test in their 1992-93 senior year and faced the prospect of being denied graduation.
Before beginning the formation of a comprehensive school staff development program, it was necessary to identify the characteristics and needs of students and schools with poor TAAS performance. IDRA’s research addressed questions about the characteristics of secondary students who do not pass the TAAS test, about schools whose students have not performed well on the TAAS test, and about schools that have performed well on the TAAS test.
TEA identified school districts from four regional education areas for participation in the study. These campuses represented urban and rural settings, small and large schools, high and low minority student enrollment, and high and low performance on the TAAS test.
Study Methods and Instrumentation
Both qualitative and quantitative measures were used to answer these research questions. Qualitative data were obtained by audiotaped focus group interviews and individual interviews, surveys with students and teachers, and individual telephone interviews with school administrators. Quantitative data were obtained by administrations of the Wisconsin Youth Survey (Wehlage, Stone, and Rutter, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1986) and through reviews of student profiles, student achievement records and TAAS scores.
Summary of Findings
1.a. Is there a relationship between student characteristics and performance on the TAAS test?
The study confirms that students with particular characteristics are not passing the TAAS test. Students identified as minority, limited-English-proficient, over age in grade, economically disadvantaged, or labeled “at-risk” perform poorly on the TAAS, as do students in special education classes. Multiple regression analysis indicates that of these six categories, four (special education enrollment, limited-English-proficiency, over age and at-risk status) produce the highest negative relationship to TAAS performance. Students enrolled in gifted and talented programs, however, show a very small positive relationship with TAAS performance.
Using the Wisconsin Youth Survey (test) the study also looked at student attitudes toward school, teachers and achievement. The results indicate that students who have failed the TAAS test (some of them two or three times) tend to be hard-working and motivated to succeed in school and in life. These students believe that their teachers care about them and consider themselves successful students. They display many other positive characteristics, though such positive attributes generally have not been recognized by their schools.
1.b. Is there a relationship between students? grades and performance on the TAAS test?
Student performance on coursework does not have much effect on TAAS performance. Many students with passing grades fail the TAAS test. The best predictor of success on the TAAS test appears to be class performance in social studies. Students who do well in social studies tend to do well on the TAAS test. Surprisingly, no relationship seems to exist between mathematics and English language arts grades and TAAS scores.
A relationship does appear to exist among individual student performances on the three TAAS subtests: mathematics, writing and reading. Students who do well on one subtest tend to do well on the others.
1.c. Is there a relationship between student’s characteristics and school grades?
In the Project Pathways research, course grades were correlated with ethnicity, free or reduced lunch eligibility, English proficiency, mobility and absences. Analysis through descriptive and correlation statistics indicates that most students passed their school courses regardless of TAAS performance. Of the five variables analyzed, mobility and absences show the highest correlation with grades.
2. What are the characteristics of schools whose students have not performed well on the TAAS test?
A weak positive correlation exists between a school’s wealth and TAAS scores: students in richer schools do better on the TAAS test. Average staff turnover, however, has a negligible negative correlation with TAAS performance.
Generally, schools do not devote a great deal of effort to teaching directly to the TAAS. Activities reported by teachers for TAAS test preparation include: tutoring (21.5%), holding TAAS classes (19.8%), reviewing with students who previously failed the test (12.7%), and including TAAS objectives with instruction on essential elements (10.7%). Not even half (40%) of teachers had participated in a TAAS remediation workshop.
An analysis of teachers who were teaching “TAAS classes,” classes specifically designed to help students who had previously failed the TAAS test, indicates that one in five (20%) have not received any training for TAAS remediation. Many of these teachers were unaware of what the TAAS test actually looked like.
Although one of TEA’s responses to poor secondary student performance on the TAAS test was the elimination of below level courses (courses that provide only prerequisite learning for the regular course), most teachers surveyed (84.1%) reported receiving little or no training on how to phase-out such courses and integrate prerequisite learning into regular content area classes. Despite the effort to phase-out below level courses, teachers reported the existence of a dual curricular system targeting low and high performing students.
Almost one-third (30%) of the teachers surveyed told us they need materials to help them with TAAS test preparation, remediation or heterogeneous grouping in the classroom. A significant number (14.9%) also expressed a need for additional training and peer support.
3. What are the characteristics of schools that have performed well on the TAAS test?
Schools across the state are trying varied activities to help students succeed on the TAAS test. Activities deemed most successful by educators include: having effective educational leadership, adopting focused and strong curricula, making TAAS a part of an integrated curriculum, using an interdisciplinary curriculum, making TAAS the responsibility of all teachers, and not allowing the TAAS test to drive the curriculum through TAAS classes.
Schools in which students who have traditionally performed poorly on the TAAS test show successful performance are characterized by an atmosphere of enthusiasm and high expectations for teachers and students. Shared decision-making, good discipline and professional development activities are also commonly found in the successful schools.
The study indicates extensive poor performance on the TAAS test. Although not all of the poor performance is restricted to a specific category of students, there is ample evidence that students with the lowest performances are those with special characteristics and those considered to be in “at-risk” situations.
Two unusual but very significant findings are from the Project Pathways research:
- Students who perform poorly on the TAAS test have positive concepts of themselves, their teachers and the schools they attend; on attitude tests, they display many positive characteristics inconsistent with the general school perceptions of these students.
- Students from groups expected to perform poorly on the TAAS, performed surprisingly well in schools with overall high performance, indicating that effective leadership and high expectations in schools can create excellence for all students.
Texas schools with low-performing students have an extensive need for comprehensive assistance. Routine or “quick fix” approaches do not provide a solution to the problem. Professional development, strong and focused curricula and progressive educational leadership are needed in order to create improved student performance.
Editor’s note: IDRA’s involvement in Project Pathways included a seven-task commitment with corresponding end products that form a comprehensive training system. For information about Project Pathways or IDRA training and technical assistance for improved student performance, call IDRA at (210) 444-1710.
María Robledo Montecel is the executive director of IDRA. Josie D. Supik is the director of the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. José A. Cárdenas is the, founder and director emeritus of IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1994, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1994 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]