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No place shows both the promise and pitfalls of such measurement more plainly than Texas, where Bush is serving his second term as Governor and which has one of the oldest and best studied of the high-stakes exams. First administered in 1990, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) requires that exams in reading, writing, math, science and social studies be taken in alternate years by the state's third- through eighth-graders. High school students must pass reading, writing and math tests. Administrators at some high-scoring schools can earn bonuses of as much as $25,000; low-performing schools risk takeover by the state. Texas officials boast that since 1994, scores have risen 27%, and more students are taking the SAT and college-level advanced-placement exams. A study released last month by the Rand Corp. ranked Texas first in the U.S. in educating children, when measured by comparing students with similar family backgrounds. Officials also cite the shrinking gap in Texas between the scores of minority students and their white peers. In 1994, 28% of blacks and 34% of Hispanics in 10th grade passed the exam. This year 67% and 70% respectively did.
Such was the experience of Leander Middle School, tucked in the hills an hour north of Austin. When the Texas exam was first instituted, only 66% of Leander's students passed the math and reading portions of the test. So the school hired a consultant. The principal also had a revolutionary idea: drop homeroom and one daily elective, then double the time students spend on math lessons to 90 min. a day. Three times a year students take--and chart their progress on--exams tougher than the TAAS. To reduce stress during the real exam week, the school serves granola bars and invites children to come to class in their pajamas. The recipe has paid off. Leander's test scores, including those of its black and Hispanic students, have climbed steadily. And Leander students aren't pining for those lost electives. "We're here to learn," says 13-year-old Brooke Godbey. "We wouldn't benefit more from choir."
Each spring, students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Denton, Texas, trade their normal curriculum for an eight-week crash course known as "TAAS Camp." There, students who ace a day of drills spend the late afternoon playing computer and board games. The stragglers get one-on-one tutoring. The pressure peaks at test time. Says Sarah Telaneus, 11: "All of a sudden your heart starts pounding and you're thinking, 'I might go blank.'" Not to worry: she and her classmates turned in scores high enough to put their teachers in line for bonuses.
Critics maintain that such gains have come at a hefty price, contending that classrooms have morphed into pressure cookers and teachers dumb down creative lessons to teach only to the test. And recent studies allege that the gains in minority scores may be illusory. Growing numbers of Texas' minorities--as many as 50% in some schools--are dropping out or being granted "special education" status, meaning their test scores are not counted toward their school's overall ranking, according to a study published last month by Walt Haney, an education professor at Boston College. Says Haney: "Any system leaving that many children behind is tragic."