Columns » Ernest Dumas

The Texas cheat sheet

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Texas has done it again. The state that gave us George W. Bush, Rod Paige and the No Child Left Behind Act has shown the rest of the country how to handle the strictures of the federal education law. Cheat, dissemble and defy. President Bush signed the NCLB in 2002 making the standardized test the means and end of public education in the United States. The “Texas Miracle” was to be replicated in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia. Bush brought in as secretary of education Rod Paige, the Houston schools superintendent who had produced the most spectacular results, stratospheric gains in student achievement on tests devised by the state of Texas. But a terrible thing happened. People started looking closely at the 10-year-old Texas miracle, particularly Dr. Paige’s Houston school district. Paige’s amazing feat turns out to have been the product of cheating, lying and manipulation. First, a New York Times examination of Houston’s test results in 2003 raised questions about the legitimacy of the achievement gains. They were statistically improbable. Houston and Texas statewide scores on national tests showed Paige’s students and Texas as a whole were doing no better and maybe even worse than kids elsewhere. An investigation found evidence of large-scale cheating: If all else failed, teachers were just giving children the answers. The new superintendent warned this year that schools would be watched closely and 200 monitors went to schools that were the most suspicious. Guess what? Scores plummeted at the high-achieving schools, by as much as 70 percentiles. After the warning and the assignment of monitors, scores of 14,751 Houston kids this year on the Texas reading test fell an average of 5 percent. Then last month the Texas education commissioner, faced with the prospect of designating nearly half of all Texas public schools as failing under terms of the No Child Left Behind Act, came up with a plan: Just tell Washington to go to hell. Rather than comply with NCLB, Texas would follow its own easy rules. That reduced the number of failing districts six-fold. The federal act says states and school districts may exempt no more than 1 percent of students from reading and math tests because they are learning disabled. Texas likes to count about 10 percent. Exempting the poorest students from the test raises the overall scores appreciably and everyone connected to education looks a lot better. Teachers get raises, principals and superintendents fat bonuses. Texas gets about $1 billion a year in federal money for compliance with NCLB. Who wants to bet whether the Bush administration will take Texas’ money away? Other states are in the same predicament although few went to Texas’ extreme in keeping poor students out of the accountability equation. The Minnesota and Utah legislatures are considering legislation that would opt their states out of NCLB to save their schools from the insidious madness of high-stakes testing. Houston teachers and administrators surely are no more unscrupulous than educators anywhere else. Their politicians were just the first to enact the typically political solution to school problems. What happened at Houston could have been predicted when it set out on the high-stakes testing nearly 15 years ago (before Bush became governor, by the way). In fact, it was predicted. The sequence is logical. First, you teach the test — exclusively if it is necessary, which it is with kids with poor backgrounds. If that is not enough, you take the next step to see that the school survives, you keep the jobs and the kids aren’t condemned. Worse is the deceit practiced upon the kids. Former Houston students interviewed by the New York Times demonstrated the problem. After 12 years in the schools with high scores on the Texas tests they were classified as “Texas scholars.” They would learn that they were ready for a career of taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills but unprepared to do college work. Teaching the test is now a preoccupation in classrooms all across Arkansas, as it is in other states with large numbers of disadvantaged children. One teacher bowed out of the Shakespeare Festival at UALR because the principal said such activities robbed the students of time for test preparation. A media specialist of 24 years at Denver wrote in the Rocky Mountain News last week that she despaired for her students after another round of high-stakes tests to meet NCLB. Special education students had spent an entire day taking a test that none of them could even comprehend. “I am ashamed of this country,” she wrote. “We are allowing our political leaders who do not understand education to belittle our children. We are letting people who know the least make decisions about our schools. We are allowing the rich to dictate a program of poverty to the poor, and call it accountability. And if this continues, we are going to end public education. Is this what Americans want?” Good question.

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