The Din of Inequity

Leaving Children Behind: How “Texas-style” Accountability Fails Latino Youth

Lester Maddox was never my favorite American politician. But the racist gargoyle from Georgia (or does that better describe his one-time aide Zell Miller) was good for the occasional one-liner. I recall one of them: “There’s nothing wrong with Georgia’s prisons, the problem is the declining quality of prisoners.” I read the line when I was working at a middle school in Austin, my last (and best) assignment in 13 years of teaching. It spoke to me.

Under orders from the Legislature, the penultimate Democratic governor of the past millennium, and a batshit billionaire he recruited to bring some business sense to the state’s schools, the Texas Education Agency was preparing us for a new era of accountability. We were to administer standardized tests to our students to measure how well we were doing our job. That prospect didn’t worry teachers in suburban districts such as Austin Westlake, where parents considered a kindergarten holdover class for students not ready for first grade—”an academic redshirt program” that would provide their kids a year of advantage when they competed for coveted slots at the top of the graduating class 12 (or 13) years later.

But it worried me. Because one of the many variables teachers do not control in the complex equation of public education is the quality of students who enroll every August. Unless, that is, the teachers work their way through one of the urban farm systems into a suburban district in which the children are possessed of the one variable most easily detected by standardized testing: “middle class parents in a high tax bracket.” Those were not the students I was teaching 20 years ago.

By declining quality, I’m not referring to the content of my students’ character. Or their intelligence. In the mid and late eighties I was teaching the most extraordinary group of students I had ever encountered. But they were adolescents who were illiterate or semi-literate in their first language, Spanish. The prospect of a standardized test that would measure how well I was doing with them seemed unreasonable.

Some of my kids were economic refugees from Mexico. Many others were fleeing terrorism underwritten and coordinated by the administration of Ronald Reagan. A 14-year-old from San Salvador, for example, had been ordered to remain in his bedroom while masked gunmen dragged his cousin and uncle from the bed they all shared and shot them in the street. Another 13-year-old fled León, Nicaragua, with a sister one year older and traveled by bus to Laredo—fleeing what this resilient and resourceful kid described as “a problem with the Contras.” Another child was the daughter of a comfortable Guatemala City family whose father had gotten crossways with the forces of the folkloric Christian evangelical president, general, and mass murderer Efraín Ríos Montt. I knew they wouldn’t test well.

Yet they were all naturals for school. They took to education with an enthusiasm and exuberance like nothing I’d ever seen in American kids. It was their good fortune (and mine) to be part of a remarkable program staffed with talented, bright, and dedicated teachers and allowed the curricular flexibility to find what worked for the kids. In what was described as a transitional bilingual curriculum, these eager kids made real and demonstrable progress. We were a gathering point for the “non-lits”—kids with sporadic or no history of school attendance in the countries they had left. We often started with the most basic reading and writing skills, first in Spanish and then in English. These kids so badly wanted to read and write that they were hard to hold back. Yet their skill levels were so varied that testing them made little sense. I had moved to another career when the test was given. But at least the state, in its wisdom, gave them all a hall pass the day their classmates made history by taking the first statewide standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills. It made sense.

That was then. Today LEP (Limited English Proficiency) students are required to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). In her essay “Faking Equity: High Stakes Education and the Education of Latino Youth,” Linda McSpadden McNeil tracks the LEP kids to the very bottom of the class, the students with the lowest passing percentages in the TEA’s accountability charts. No one should be surprised.

McNeil’s examination of high-stakes testing in the state on which our national education policy was modeled, anchors Leaving Children Behind. The book is a collection of 10 essays, all good but none as clear, cogent, and compelling as McNeil’s (perhaps because she learned to write as a high school English teacher before acquiring a second language—the pedantic lingua franca of the academe). The Rice University professor of education pulls back the curtain from the TEA wizard running the state’s standardized testing program and reveals what only can be described as fraud. Unfortunately, that fraud was the model for the President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

Those of us who have been around the state for a while know that the last genuine miracle to occur here was the appearance of the face of Jesus on a screen door in Groves in the seventies. The “Texas Miracle” in education, the one that turned Rod Paige into the Secretary of Education (that might actually top Screen Door Jesus), was the across-the-board increase in test scores in the state’s public schools in response to standardized testing in the nineties. It was that increase in scores that George Bush used to persuade members of Congress that Texas-style, high-stakes testing would increase the quality of instruction in all the nation’s schools. Unfortunately it was fraudulent.

It is that fraud that McNeil and other authors in this collection, edited by former UT-Austin education professor Angela Valenzuela, document. They also demonstrate its effect on non-white students in the state’s public schools. McNeil, for example, uses a methodology that is spot on and looks at three separate sets of statistics:

• scores on standardized tests specific to Texas

• scores on national tests administered in Texas, standard college board exams such as the ACT and the SAT, the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), and the Texas Academic Skills Performance test given to all students applying to Texas colleges who fail to achieve a certain score on the ACT or SAT

• the number of students who enroll in Texas high schools as freshmen compared to the number of students enrolled as seniors

Leaving Children Behind cover

What she finds is stunning and sobering, yet not surprising. It answers a question Ted Kennedy should have considered when he signed on to support the No Child Left Behind legislation package: How could Texas, a state historically at the bottom of the statistical heap in teacher salaries, per capita spending on students, class size, number of qualified and certified teachers, and funding equity have been sold to the Congress as a model on which to base national reform? Well, go figure.

McNeil reveals that the Texas test numbers were bogus. Teachers deprived students of genuine teaching to make the time for daily drills to prepare them for a test that would determine their advancement. Predictably the test scores increased. Yet on other standardized tests measuring broader academic achievement and thinking skills, for which students were not regularly coached, the scores of Texas’ kids tanked. All this is borne out by cold statistical analysis, comparing the Texas Education Agency’s published test results with scores of the same groups of students taking tests for which their teachers were not under pressure to prepare.

In an essay on the federal government’s role in shaping education policy, Jorge Ruiz de Velasco recalls the moment and movement by which the corporate accountability model found its way into our public schools. Citing education historian Larry Cuban, Ruiz de Velasco writes of the compelling logic of restructuring schools “so that managers and employees who make the product decide how it is to be done efficiently and effectively. Then hold those managers and employees responsible for the quality of the product by rewarding those who meet or exceed their goals and punishing those who fail.” Success would be measured by the difference between the cost of needed inputs and the market value of outputs. The kids are the product and the measurement of the value added to the product is determined by one criterion, a test score.

This corporate model of rewards and punishment for managers—principals offered $10,000 for an increase in campus-wide scores and $25,000 and up for superintendents for district-wide increases, coupled with dismissal for principals and teachers at failing schools—produced predictable results. Cheating and lying.

The cheating involved devoting many days to teaching the test, downloading tests from previous years, and looking the other way as students likely to lower average scores “disappeared.” Like Enron managers compelled to produce, teachers gamed the system. And administrators lied about the departure of students sure to underperform. The kids who departed tended to be African American and Latino. McNeil suspected that individual school district reports on low dropout rates were false, which she confirmed by comparing huge freshman classes in the state’s high schools to senior classes, which, in many schools, were half the size of the freshman class. Where did the kids go? The categorization of “leavers” has become a term of art in education, always framed to avoid the suggestion that students drop out. The TEA accommodated the state’s 1,000-plus districts by creating several creative categories. “Gone to Mexico,” is often the response for missing students, even if it is a hard sell in explaining students leaving predominately African American schools. In Houston an assistant principal blew the whistle on an utterly impossible zero-percent dropout rate at an urban high school with a large Mexican immigrant scholastic population. (He was reassigned to an elementary school.) Test scores were improving because teachers were teaching the test and administrators were quietly accommodating the early departure of students who might threaten campus-wide test scores. The Texas Miracle was The Texas Fraud.

Other essays in the collection are an expansion and elaboration on the themes that are explained and documented by McNeil. The high dropout rate among Latino students, Valenzuela convincingly explains, is encouraged by the use of standardized tests in lower grades, where students who don’t pass are retained. It was initiated in Texas as part of former Texas Governor George Bush’s campaign to end social promotion. In TEA’s own reports, Valenzuela found that in 2002 Hispanic students, who represented 54 percent of the state’s high school population, also represented 37 percent of high school dropouts. African-American students, who represented 14.3 percent of the state’s high school population, represented 18.7 of its dropouts. And white students, representing 45.3 percent of the state’s high school students, represented only 25.5 percent of dropouts. She also documents the common-sense supposition that kids retained in elementary school are far more likely to drop out of high school. (Valenzuela herself has dropped out, leaving the University of Texas to accept a position in California.)

The arguments advanced by the authors Valenzuela brings together in this volume are disturbing but not surprising. Minority students have historically been cheated by legislators unwilling to adequately fund our state’s public schools. We are on yet another round of Texas Supreme deliberation on the lack of equity in school funding. And the Legislature just spent most of the summer refusing to come up with the money that would provide equity and adequacy for the state’s public schools. So it’s hardly shocking that a system of standardized testing designed to drive reform serves interests of students in suburban schools at the expense of minority students. (Another argument advanced in the book is that because they arrive lacking readiness skills and then attend underfunded schools, minority kids lose more genuine instruction time to teachers who sacrifice teaching to drilling them for tests.)

Apologists for the Bush administration’s corporate “accountability” approach to public education will dismiss these writers as identity politics whiners. Yet the authors advance their arguments with almost as many charts and graphs as Ross Perot used in his failed campaign to win the 1992 presidential nomination. They also stand on a ruling handed down by Federal District Judge Ed Prado, whom President Bush recently advanced from federal district court in San Antonio to the Fifth Circuit. In 2000, the year that George W. Bush became president, Judge Prado agreed with plaintiffs’ claims that the state’s standardized testing program had an adverse effect on minority students. Then he ruled that federal law offered the minority plaintiffs no remedy.

Reading the final chapter I’m left with the impression that Valenzuela took the pulse of the Texas Legislature and headed for a friendlier climate in California. Hidden in the hard-ass agenda advanced by Republican House Public Education Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf, and underwritten by San Antonio right-wing moneyman James Leininger, is a scheme to privatize as much of public education as possible. “Let consumer choice concepts rule,” Grusendorf says (in Valenzuela’s chapter epigraph). “That’s a form of regulation. It’s called the market.”

It’s worked for soybean futures and energy derivatives. Maybe it will work for one of the largest commodities on the market in the state of Texas: our children.

Lou Dubose is a former editor of the Observer and author with Jan Reid of The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money and the Rise of the Republican Congress.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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