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Kress, continued from page 13 an ever-greater percentage of class time ” H e had a very goes into test preparation, more money flows to the companies that publish test prep material. The schools under the most pressure are those that educate large populations of poor, minority, and limited-English students. Ninety-nine percent of the kids in the Laredo Independent School District are Latino; ninety-five percent of them come from families below the poverty level. The district’s test scores are consistently low. “These are kids who often don’t speak English, kids without the kinds of experiences that kids elsewhere may have,” says Laredo ISD superintendent Sylvia Bruni. “They come from homes without books. Some don’t have televisions.” They are, in fact, the disadvantaged kids for whom Sandy Kress has been pitching accountability for nearly 15 years. Laredo’s third-grade teachers spent the equivalent of one day a week administering either the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test itself or diagnostic “formative assessment” tests this school year, a district-wide testing inventory found. The inventory didn’t count time spent on test prep, which Bruni says is “almost constant”extended school days, Saturday test prep classes, and a portion of every class, in every subject, every day. Since individual schools purchase most of their test prep materials themselves, Bruni doesn’t have a district-wide figure on how much money is spent. But she says it’s a large percentage of resources that the districtone of the poorest in the statecan ill afford. “The district spends money, the campuses spend money, the teachers spend money,” Bruni says. “It’s a lot.” Laredo administrators have decided to cut back on practice tests in future years, but the decision is a hard one. Test prep isn’t education, Bruni says, and the time and money spent on it mean that other, more sophisticated curriculum must be dumped. The district is under increasing pressure to raise scores, however. Two of Laredo’s three high schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in 2004, and progress requirements will climb each year. Without extensive drill ideological perspective, and others were trying to introduce some realism. He seemed to be trying to shout us into doing what he wanted.” ing, more students will fail the test and the sanctions of No Child Left Behind will kick in. Earlier this year, Laredo ISD joined the National Education Agency’s lawsuit against the Department of Education, challenging the law. “You can’t seem to break the stranglehold,” Bruni says. “The temptation is just to drill. It isn’t meaningful for the kids, but teachers know that the scores will go up.” If tests are over-emphasized, Kress says, teachers and principals themselves are at fault. “Why do administrators allow test prep materials to dominate the curriculum in schools that serve the poor?” he asks. “Damn it, they’re the ones in charge.” Despite protests from districts like Laredo, Kress is pushing for higher stakes, tougher standards; and swifter retribution against schools that don’t make the grade. Kress was the head cheerleader for proposals from the Governor’s Business Council that wound up in HB 2: requiring a passing score on high school exit exams reducing the deadline for improvement from three years to two, and allowing private companies to take over consistently low-performing schools. He has also used his position on the Texas Education Commissioners’ Accountability Advisory Committee to push the Texas Education Agency to toughen its accountability rating system. At an advisory committee meeting in March, Kress laid out a proposal under which the percentage of students who must pass the test before a school is rated “acceptable” would jump by 10 points. Rates would then climb five points a year until 2010, when 100 percent of students must pass the reading exam before a school will be considered acceptable. When other committee members called for a more gradual and realistic stepping-up of the rating system, Kress lost his temper. “He threw a tantrum,” says one fellow committee member. “He had a very ideological perspective, and others were trying to introduce some realism. He seemed to be trying to shout us into doing what he wanted. He’s a charming, agreeable, persuasive guy, but in front of an audience he’s not trying to charm, he’s a bully?’ Accountability’s supporters continue to push testing as the surest, fastest solution for the poor kids in weak schools. That a handful of companies are making a killing off accountability, they say, is incidentaljust another example of the beauty of the free market system. But a mounting body of evidence suggests the “Texas miracle” Sandy Kress used to sell accountability to the country is a sham. Critics point to Texas’ rising dropout rates and flagging scores on college entrance exams as signs that testprep-centered teaching is taking its toll on kidsespecially those who are black, Latino, or poor. Almost two out of five Texas high school students never earn a high school diploma, according to a report released this year by the Intercultural Development Research Association, which has tracked Texas dropout rates since 1986. IDRNs report showed that in 2004, 36 percent of students who were freshman in 2001 were gone by last spring’s gradu 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 13, 2005