Prayer came to public schools in Texas on April 30. Third-graders who did not pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) in March had to retake the test that day, and many were probably asking God for guidance about which answer to mark.
I hope all those students pass the test, because it's painful for children to be left behind. And yet, we need to ask what a passing grade means. Since the Texas emphasis on testing has now become a model for the nation through the federal No Child Left Behind Act, we also need to ask whether that approach will reverse the educational rot particularly evident in many urban schools.
Judging by Texas newspapers, passing grades equal triumph. When 89 percent of students passed the test on their first try, the Dallas Morning News crowed, "TAKS scores draw cheers," the Austin American-Statesman opined, "Students rise to challenge," and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times called out, "Texas kids ace TAKS." But few newspapers mentioned that the passing score is only 55 percent.
Nor have many newspapers in Texas exposed the workings of another test used to rate schools and school districts: If 55 percent of students get 55 percent of the answers right on easy tests, the school or district is deemed acceptable. Higher scores lead to schools being rated "recognized" and "exemplary." Those honors were supposed to be for the top schools, but in eight years the number of "recognized" or "exemplary" schools has jumped from 9 percent to 61 percent.
Are these stats going by too fast? Here's a summary: For a Texas school to be acceptable, no more than 45 percent of students can be left behind. For a student's performance to be acceptable, he can't be wrong more than 45 percent of the time. Why not ask students how many legs an elephant has, and accept any answer from three to five? (If students overwhelmingly recognize that an elephant has four legs, call the school "exemplary.")
The bottom line is that school officials typically use tests not to diagnose educational deficiencies but, as one spokesman said, "to maintain our community confidence." The No Child Left Behind Act that the last Congress passed (after President Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy became strange bedfellows) allows schools to play similar number games. The Act will help to maintain national confidence in public schools -- for a couple of years, until people see that millions of Johnnies still can't read.