“Science education in Texas is a big success.”

“Science education in Texas is a failure.”

The first statement is a reasonable conclusion drawn from the Texas Education Agency reports of student scores from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test. According to the Texas Education Agency, 91 percent of our 8th grade students passed the science section of the TAAS in Spring 2001. This is up from an 88 percent passage rate in 2000.

These numbers are incredibly encouraging. They imply that our public schools are churning out students with the academic potential to be automotive mechanics, electricians, computer programmers, doctors and engineers – just what our economy needs.

With a near-universal passage rate on the state-required TAAS test, who can question the instruction of science in our schools?

Those meddlers at the US Department of Education, it seems. They recently released data from the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress science test. According to the results, Texas students don’t fair so well compared to kids across the country.

In fact, almost 50 percent “lacked basic science knowledge.” Conversely, only 23 percent qualified as either “proficient” or “advanced.” For sake of clarification, to get a “basic” rating on the NAEP test students must “demonstrate some knowledge and reasoning required for understanding of the earth, physical and life sciences… obtain information from graphs, diagrams, and tables… have a beginning understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.”

This means more than half of our students cannot understand, for example, the cause-and-effect relationship between shoddy tests and accurate results.

The “end of course” high school biology TAAS test offers one such example. Students are asked to look at a cartoon drawing and determine how the girl pictured might more accurately measure the liquid in a graduated cylinder that she is holding at an obviously contorted angle.

Another TAAS question, this one for 8th graders, also features a cartoon. In it, a bird is sitting on a nest beside several eggs, with branches of the tree visible. A second cartoon shows the same bird and eggs, but one branch has large berries hanging from it. Students are asked what has grown between the times of the two pictures.

Any questions why 90 percent of the students pass the state science test?

Such inanities litter the TAAS landscape. They might be excusable were it not for the fact that parents, teachers, schools, the legislature and others rely on the test results to judge student performance and hold our schools accountable.

Disparities in test scores, such as those between the NAEP and the TAAS, beg the question: “Who holds the state test accountable?” Teachers have long complained about the negative effects of the TAAS in the classroom. Maybe we should start listening.

No one asks tough questions when kids pass the state tests with flying colors; everyone praises the leaders and congratulates Maria and Jared. But when those same kids suddenly fail a test, Texans should ask very tough questions.

Why does the TAAS show stellar science skills, while a national test has our students are lagging? More broadly, why is it that scores on the state test show increasing improvement, while achievement remains flat for Texas kids on college entrance exams?

If Texas held students to the same passing standards as national tests such as the Stanford 9 or Iowa Test of Basic Skills, half of the kids would be held back, according to research by the University of Houston.

Higher failure rates from a more rigorous test might cause heartburn across Texas, but not nearly so much as a student feels when he realizes his academic ability is not really in the top ten percent after flunking out of college or failing a pre-employment exam.

The TEA is right now crafting a new assessment test (the TAKS). Will it feature more inane questions, producing more meaningless scores? Or, will it provide a true measure of academic acumen?

Elected officials and policymakers owe the taxpayers a solid measure with which we can judge how well our education money is being spent.

More importantly, we owe it to our children’s future to demand an academically rigorous test that allows us to better provide for their educational needs.

Michael Quinn Sullivan is director of media and government relations for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank based in San Antonio.