After long struggles with TAKS, former students now have a chance to earn a diploma

Elizabeth Owens-Nelson overcame personal challenges as she worked toward graduation from Fort Worth’s Southwest High School in 2007.

She was supposed to be Class of 2008, but she became pregnant her junior year. She juggled her impending motherhood and academics through an accelerated program offered by Fort Worth schools. That’s how she ended up on track to get her high school diploma a year early.

“I was pretty much putting myself through hell to make a better life for me and my son,” Owens-Nelson said, recalling how hard she worked to earn her credits as a teen mother.

But then a math test got in the way.

In April 2007, she failed the exit-level math test that was part of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS. That was the state’s former high-stakes tests for public school students. It was later replaced by the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR.

Under Texas rules, seniors had to pass exit-level TAKS tests in reading/English language arts, math, social studies and science to get their diplomas.

Owens-Nelson took the math TAKS again and again until she reached about five times. She failed by just a few points each time and she struggled with intense test phobia.

The Class of 2007’s graduation came and went. She didn’t celebrate. She didn’t have a diploma. Now, more than 10 years later, Owens-Nelson finally received her diploma thanks to a change in state rules.

“I feel over the moon,” said Nelson, who picked up her diploma on June 3 at Southwest High School. “It is one less burden I have to worry about. I earned it 12 years ago.”

Texas school districts are looking for former students like Owens-Nelson. Counselors have been combing through school files and contacting former students. Some districts have taken to social media to find students. The provision was set to expire on Sept. 1. However, lawmakers extended it to 2023 during the last legislative session.

Pamela Berry, executive director of Secondary Leadership for Crowley schools, said many of these former students found work despite not having a diploma.

“Many of them have gone and lived productive lives,” Berry said, adding that getting the diploma will open many more opportunities.

A change in the rules

Texas used the TAKS test from 2003 through 2011. The state moved to the STAAR test at the 2011-2012 school year.

Students who had not passed TAKS were able to retest until the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. Since then, the retest was not offered and these former students had to request a district decision or take an alternative test, such as the STAAR, to get their diploma.

Last year, there was a change in the rules.

Students who entered ninth grade before the 2011-12 school year and couldn’t get their diplomas because they did not pass one or more of the the required tests can qualify for their diplomas if they meet certain other criteria.

They must have taken the exit-level tests at least three times and completed high school requirements. Additionally, they must meet at least one alternative requirement: Performance on the SAT or ACT college entrance exams, passing a state-approved high school equivalency exam, obtaining a post-secondary license or certificate, military service and completion of college-level coursework.

“They had to go through a different journey,” Berry told the Star-Telegram in May, adding that the district had identified about 60 former students from Crowley and North Crowley high schools who might be eligible for their high school diplomas.

The TAKS graduation rule was heavily criticized years ago. Some students protested in front of the Fort Worth school district administration building. Many districts didn’t allow these students to take part in graduation ceremonies.

Back then, some districts made allowances and let seniors participate in commencement ceremonies, but without passing the tests, they walked across a stage and left without a diploma.

In 2007, the Fort Worth school district encouraged about 600 seniors who failed portions of the TAKS to take a summer tutoring program.

Fort Worth and other Texas districts held summer graduation ceremonies for students who passed after retaking tests. But many, like Nelson, had to find opportunity without the benefit of a high school diploma.

Owens-Nelson said she understands the idea behind standardized testing, but said the TAKS exit-test rule was unfair and created years of burden. She said the message from the state to students was: “We are going to stop you at senior year and say all that work doesn’t matter because you didn’t pass one test.”

Earning a high school diploma

It is unclear how many former high school students will benefit from the provision.

As the school year ended, the Crowley school district pushed the query on social media with the hopes of identifying former students who qualify for the program. High school counselors also worked to find former students who can finally get their diplomas.

Maria Alvarez Phillips, director of curriculum policy for Fort Worth schools, said that as of July 9 the district has issued four diplomas under the provision. Another former student has qualified but won’t be able to get her diploma until the new school year starts.

Phillips said they are waiting for paperwork from two more students and plan to review four transcripts soon to check for eligibility.

School leaders and counselors are urging students who might qualify for their diplomas to contact their high schools.

Antonious Brooks, 30, said he hopes he will qualify. He planned to be among North Crowley High School’s Class of 2007, but he didn’t pass the science exit-level TAKS test.

Brooks said he had all his credits. He felt comfortable and prepared for the other tests — especially reading and math. He failed the science test three times. A frustration set in for the then 18-year-old.

“Just one test got me,” Brooks told the Star-Telegram in a telephone interview from his home in Tacoma, Washington.

Brooks said he received paperwork documenting he had completed high school credits, but that didn’t count as a Texas high school diploma.

“I didn’t have the official diploma,” Brooks said. “Without the diploma you can’t apply for college.”

It turns out Brooks didn’t need a diploma to enter the U.S. Army, which was his plan at the time. He served through 2017, including an assignment in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2012. He’s been working for Amazon and hopes to transfer to Fort Worth soon.

Brooks said the diploma would allow him to become an electrician.

Owens-Nelson has ambitions too. She is enrolled at Tarrant County College and is working toward a paralegal certificate. She said she would like to be a family attorney.

Owens-Nelson, 28, chuckled while retelling her graduation memory. On June 3, She shows up at Southwest High School and tells staff she needs to pick up a diploma.

The staffer announced: “We have a parent to pick a diploma for a student!”

“I said, ‘No ma’am I am here for myself.’”

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.