one of its biggest beneficiaries and an emblem of the state’s educational trends. While the test has always meant high stakes for kids, who are promoted or held back based on their scores, those risks may soon get much higher for everyone in the education community. In the possible school finance special session to come, the state is poised to make test scores the basis for everything from teacher salaries to a district’s share of state funding. Critics of high-stakes testing allege that intense focus on a single test drains time and money away from the actual business of teaching and learning. In the end, it cheats even the high-scoring kids out of a real education. And in our new commissioner’s old district, we see that principle at work. While scores statewide have climbed every year since the testing system first was instituted in 1992, in Galena Park, as in the state as a whole, other indicators of student achievement have not kept pace. Neeley herself went to school in the Galena Park district along the Houston ship channel. Since grade school, she had felt called to teach, delivering her first lessons in her mother’s backyard, to a class of dolls. After college at Texas A&M University, she returned to serve in the district as teacher, assistant principal, principal, and central administrator. She was named superintendent in 1995, at a time when the demographics of the area were changing fast, forcing the district to absorb an influx of students from poor and minority families, many of whom barely spoke English. Just weeks after Neeley accepted the superintendent year’s accountability ratings. Based on its TAAS scores, Galena Park ISD was rated “acceptable”the Cof the state’s accountability system. Galena Park High School, Neeley’s own alma mater, was rated “low-performing” for its rock-bottom test scores and abysmal dropout ratenearly one student in ten left the school without graduating. Neeley was mortified. She solemnly promised her district board of trustees that the district would never have another low-performing school. If it did, they should fire her. Then she set about bringing the TAAS scores up. First Neeley hired a team of consultants from Ohio State University to audit the district and determine its weak points. After a yearlong study the consultants issued their findings, ripping apart everything from the lecture style of the district’s teachers to So the district, under Neeley’s leadership, set out to do what TAAS critics identify as the ultimate sin of standardized testing they began teaching to the test. At Neeley’s prompt ing, teachers devoted the first 10 minutes of every class, in every grade, for every subjectincluding band, art, and PEto TAAS exercises. the lack of grievance counselors available to address employee complaints. But most of all, they emphasized the district’s lack of “alignment”that is, the extent to which classroom teaching lined up with the content and format of the TAAS test. “They told us we weren’t teaching the same stuff we were testing,” Neeley says today. So the district, under Neeley’s leadership, set out to do what TAAS critics identify as the ultimate sin of standardized testingthey began teaching to the test. At Neeley’s prompting, teachers devoted the first 10 minutes of every class, in every grade, for every subjectincluding band, art, and PEto TAAS exercises. Special test prep classes replaced extracurricular sessions for students who failed the TAAS on their first attempt. Even the birthday cards Neeley sent to every teacher and principal in the district read “Think Exemplary?’ Neeley also issued an ultimatum: Principals had three years to win their schools an accountability rating of at least “recognized”awarded when 80 percent of students in all racial and economic groups passed all parts of the TAAS. Principals who didn’t meet the deadline were demoted or fired. It worked. Over the nine years of Neeley’s tenure, in a fastgrowing district that added more poor and minority students every year, the percentage of students passing the TAAS almost continued on page 17 p ho to:cour tesy o f TEA TEA. Commissioner Shirley Neeley 4/9/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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