ation ceremonies. That number is down slightly from previous years, but still higher than it was 20 years ago. Attrition rates are highest among minorities, the IDRA report shows, and the gap is growing. In 1986, 27 percent of Anglo students left school without graduating. Last year, Anglo students’ attrition was down to 22 percent, while rates for black students had climbed from 34 to 44 percent, and for Latinos from 45 to 49 percent. The report estimates dropouts have cost the state $500 billion over the past two decades in lost productivity and in the costs of social services, courts, and jails. Dr. Albert Cortez, director of IDRA’s Institute of Policy and Leadership, is quick to point out that Texas’ dropout trouble predates high-stakes testing. But the tests, far from being a solution, have become part of the problem, he says. Narrowed curriculum bores and daunts some students into dropping out. Students who don’t think they’ll pass the high school testa requirement for graduationmay stop going to school. Other researchers, including Dr. Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas and Rice education professor Linda McNeil, say administrators under pressure to raise test scores may push potentially low-scoring students to drop out before the exam. Despite the emphasis accountability supporters put on “narrowing the achievement gap,” state scores on college entrance exams show minority students losing ground since the tests were instituted. Fewer Texas high school students are taking the SAT and ACT now than 10 years ago, data from the Texas Education Agency shows, and on average they are scoring worse. The average score on the SATs for Latino students has fallen 17 points since 1996. The average score of black students has also drifted down, from 852 in 1996 to 843 in 2003. Only Anglo students show slight improvement, from 1043 to 1051. Sandy Kress knows the data on high schools isn’t good. His solution is more tests. The gains tests bring in elementary and middle schools are lost in high school, Kress says, because high schools aren’t held accountable. Here in Texas, Kress has agitated to extend standardized testing to high schools. “We still are not where we need to be in terms of college-going rates, particularly for poor and minority kids,” Kress says. “That’s what this secondary school focus is all about. We still have some schools that perform pitifully without consequence.” And if the teaching curriculum has narrowed to suit the demands of the test, Kress says the answer is to test more. “This will make some testing critics cringe, but one thing the accountability system can do with the narrowness problem is have more subjects tested,” he says. Testing critics do indeed cringe when they imagine what history, science, and art will look like broken down into manageable, multiple-choice, worksheet-length bites. Worse, a recent report by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice suggests No Child Left Behind is exporting Texas-style testing scandals to the rest of the country: In New York, school administrators have been accused of pushing thousands of low-scoring students into high school equivalency programs, where, although they never earn diplomas, they don’t count as dropouts. In North Carolina, eight out of ten elementary school teachers say they spend more than 20 percent of class time preparing for tests. Reports of cheating by principals and teachers have surfaced in more than 20 states. Bush’s proposed education budget for 2006 echoes Texas’ planned expansion of testing. The bulk of the president’s High School Initiative is $1.24 billion in “research-based interventions” for students at risk of failing the new tests. Few districts have such interventional programs; even fewer know how to go about designing and implementing them. Luckily, most test-publishers already offer their own versions. The jury is still out on whether the tests are good for kids, and whether more tests will be better. But they will be very, very good for business. And, of course, they’ll be good for Sandy Kress. Emily Pyle is a freelance reporter based in Austin. Executed, continued from page 23 uncorrected.” He also points out that once a sentence has been decided and confirmed by state courts, federal courts are rarely concerned with later evidence proving actual innocence. It’s an old adage among death penalty supporters that the condemned crow innocence. They don’t. But the only people who know this to be a myth are those who know inmates. Like Graham, some claim innocence, perhaps because they really are innocent. Others, like Martinez, readily admit their guilt and know the law well enough to recognize that their punishment is unfair. Dow wants us to be concerned with both sorts of cases. He understands why America’s death penalty debate now turns on the issue of innocence. But he’s more worried about whether the system is fair. When he first started representing death row inmates, he believed in the death penalty. But as he moved deeper into the experience what he describes as understanding the difference between knowing an inmate’s name and knowing the inmate himselfhe started to wonder about what the system actually does to the dignity of human beings. Human beings such as Johnny Joe Martinez, whose “only victory” in years of appearing before state and federal courts, was the simple act of non-violent protest on his execution day. Or Cesar Fierro, who after two decades of solitary confinement, jabbers somewhat incoherently and refuses to cooperate with his defense attorneys. According to Dow these offenses to human dignity demonstrate that the current debate over innocence is a “sideshow.” Coming from the director of an innocence project, this provocative argument directly confronts Sister Helen Prejean’s recent attempt to draw attention to cases where innocent people may have been executed \(see “Stopping the Death Machine,” December, 3, tance of innocence: The reason we react as we do when continued on page 28 MAY 13, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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