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Web site aims to help students pass test
Keep on TRACKing

Usually, when high school students compete in track, they're running races, jumping hurdles or pole vaulting. Now, however, the term has a whole new meaning--at least for Texas' 11th graders.

These days, TRACK, which stands for TAKS Readiness and Core Knowledge, is an interactive Web site, www.track.uttelecampus.org, launched by the University of Texas (UT) System in February 2004 to help Texas' 11th-graders prepare for the state's exit-level exam, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, commonly called TAKS.

Until 2004, to graduate from high school in Texas, students had to pass TAKS in the 10th grade as well as complete all their required classes. In 2004, the state began administering TAKS in the 11th grade and requiring students to pass it in 11th grade instead of 10th grade to receive their high school diplomas. Students can take the test up to five times.

Texas is one of 20 states that administers a mandatory exit-level exam, according to Susan Barnes, associate commissioner for standards and programs at the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

Waking up
In 2003, UT System officials learned that preliminary test results showed only about half of all 10th graders were likely to pass the new, exit-level TAKS when they became 11th graders in 2004. Moreover, it looked like only 36 percent of minority students and 12 percent of those not proficient in English would pass.

That 10th grade performance report was a wake-up call, and the UT System moved quickly to create TRACK, according to Pedro Reyes, the UT System's associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.

The UT System obtained $850,000 in grants from the Meadows Foundation and the Houston Endowment to create and operate the Web site for three years, Reyes said. System staff consulted testing and subject matter experts at the TEA and at districts throughout the state, and the site was up and running in less than a year.

TRACK, which follows the state's curriculum, offers students free diagnostic tests in four subject areas: English and language arts, math, social studies and science. The Web site is designed to help students learn their strengths and weaknesses in each area. After giving students immediate feedback on how they fared, TRACK points students to online learning materials to help them get up to speed.

"It's not a practice test--it is a diagnostic tool, and not all students need to take it," Reyes said. "It's an online tool to help focus students on what they need to study to pass the exit-level tests."

Students can log on to TRACK, and so can parents and teachers who want to use it to help students prepare. Between February and September 2004, the TRACK Web site received more than 5 million hits. Nearly 60,000 students logged on to take the exam, and close to 50,000 used the online learning materials, according to Melanie Pritchett, the UT System's assistant vice chancellor for Educational System Alignment.

Teachers too
"While there is only one test [per subject area] now, there are plans to expand TRACK to include several others for each subject area by the 2005 school year," Pritchett said. "We also had an enormous number of teachers contacting us. They want a version they can use in the classroom or lab setting in which they can work with multiple students, and we are working to develop that capability."

Pritchett said UT is using TEA funding to develop additional materials for teachers so they can use achievement data to help tailor instruction for individual students.

UT System staff also plans to provide some free online materials to teachers, particularly those who are teaching outside their areas of expertise, said Reyes. The first materials will be available in late 2004.

"There is a need for this kind of assistance," Reyes said. "In some school districts, you have up to 30 percent of the teachers who are teaching Algebra I who are not certified to teach that subject."

The UT System also is operating a pilot program in 25 high schools to provide "e-tutors" in English and language arts and mathematics, said Reyes. The pilot enables students to get assistance from tutors from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. through a Web site in real time, five days a week. If it is successful, Reyes said, the UT System will expand the pilot if funding is available.

On the front line
Barnes does not consider TRACK a magic bullet for improving students' scores on TAKS.

"It is impossible to attribute improved scores at any one school or district to any single change in the classroom," said Barnes.

TRACK, however, was a welcome addition to San Antonio's Thomas Alva Edison High School's TAKS preparation program, according to Charles Muñoz, Edison's principal.

"When the district unveiled TRACK last year, I thought any assistance we could get to help us help our students, we are going to utilize," said Muñoz.

In spring 2004, Muñoz went to every 9th, 10th and 11th grade classroom to present a slide show on TAKS and explain why students have to take the exam. At the end of each talk to 11th-grade classes, Muñoz said he told students about TRACK.

He printed up cards with the Internet address on it and encouraged students to use TRACK to find out their strengths and weaknesses and report their results to their teachers.

"It was helpful because it was like taking the real test and then you could go back and see what you missed and then study those topics," said Jessica Camacho, a senior at Edison.

The school also offered Saturday schools so 11th-graders could receive tutoring. The last Saturday before TAKS, Muñoz said more than 300 students showed up.

Student performance at Edison improved substantially in all four subjects after the school implemented the Saturday tutoring and introduced students to TRACK. In 2003, 63 percent of Edison's 11th graders passed the English exam, but in 2004, about 88 percent passed. In social studies, 99 percent passed in 2004, compared with 80 percent the previous year.

In math, 49 percent passed in 2003; by 2004, that figure jumped to 85 percent. And in science, 48 percent passed in 2003, but 79 percent passed in 2004.

"TRACK was part of our TAKS action plan, our menu to help students. I think it, along with our Saturday classes, our teachers and tutoring, helped our students pass," Muñoz said.

Pam Wagner