It's game time for Texas students: TAKS has begun

Some principals call TAKS their Super Bowl.

Well, it's game time.

The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills began Monday and continues for the rest of the week for elementary, middle and high school students.

"We've all been working, practice is over, everyone is in the championship and we all get to play," said Wendee Long, principal at Wayside Middle School in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district.

But it's more than just campus rankings behind the push to perform.

The goal for each student is not just to pass but also to do better on the test than the year before, Long said.

Many school districts are using data to help teachers find ways to accomplish that goal.

The data reveal everything from what type of instruction the student needs to where the student should sit in the classroom to get the most benefit.

One such system used in Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, Inova, provides data on each student with three years of TAKS history, detailing strong and weak points and predicting the student's score on the next test. Each student is given a ranking as well.

"The longer you have history on a kid, the more accurate the data is," Long said.

Teachers get the data before school starts each year, giving them a clear snapshot of what they are dealing with before they even meet the students.

Some teachers seat students in the classroom according to their rankings. Those with higher rankings sit in the back, while those who need extra help sit in the front.

The data also tell whether students who are failing are working to their potential. If so, they need more instructional help; if not, they need more relationship-building with the teacher, Long said.

"Using data to help problem areas is not about taking those who fail and trying to make them pass all of a sudden," she said. "It's about adding value, building on scores to get better through time."

Teachers better understand the program now that it's in its fourth year.

"We want the students to know they can be successful," Long said. "The bottom line is, it's for the kids."

Barbara Downing, assistant superintendent for educational support services for Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, said a lot of districts gather data, but if they don't make a substantial effort to analyze and use it, they're at a disadvantage.

"It's one thing to have the data, and yes, we have it," she said. "But what does it mean?"

Finding ways to improve each student's performance is essential because the district's demographics are changing, with students ranging from economically disadvantaged to gifted, Downing said.

"We need to meet the needs of all of our students," Downing said. "We are using the data to the point that sometimes it becomes overwhelming, but every bit of it helps."

Steve Griffin, principal of Boswell High School, said another system the district uses, the Kilgo method, helps educators look at how instruction is delivered.

"Once the data is collected, grade levels and departments develop specific plans to bolster learning strategies and improve student achievement," he said.

Griffin said the district examines the 10 lowest-scoring objectives.

In science, for example, one of those objectives is DNA.

Griffin said students are tested on DNA when they are in the 10th grade, but DNA is taught in ninth-grade biology.

Now, as part of the curriculum, 10th-grade chemistry teachers are incorporating DNA into their lessons to refresh students' knowledge, he said.

"They can't just stop and teach DNA," Griffin said. "But they can continue to bring up areas of weakness."

The best way to see whether using the data systems is helpful is to look at the scores, he said.

For example, 82 percent of the district's students passed the science TAKS in 2009, compared to 78 percent in 2008.

"Are the kids learning the material? If they are, they will score well on the test," Griffin said. "But if you don't do anything different, you will get the same results."

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