Vol 29, Issue 40 Print Issue

Guest Column: Tests Breed Schools for Scandal

No one really expected public schools in border towns such as El Paso to do well on under No Child Left Behind. Their tax base is too small to educate so many poor kids, many of whom don’t speak English when they begin school. Despite what we say about closing the achievement gap, the system is set up for kids in El Paso to fail. So when the test scores rose in El Paso, schools got more money from Washington, and superintendant Lorenzo Garcia took $56,000 in bonuses and began bragging about “the Bowie model,” named after a large high school with the kind of predominantly poorer, immigrant student body that usually fails standardized tests.  It was the miracle testing advocates had been waiting for.

Folks in El Paso had a different name for what happened: “los desaparecidos,” or the disappeared. Turns out Garcia and several co-conspirators kept hundreds of kids out of school in the 10th grade so they couldn’t take the tests that counted under No Child Left Behind. They held back some 9th graders and skipped others to the 11th grade. Truant officers visited some at-risk kids and told them they were better off not coming to school. Others were encouraged to drop out and get their GED. 

This is the worst testing scandal to come along under the high-stakes testing regime that rules our schools, but we have no right to act surprised in Texas. What happened in El Paso is not an aberration but an inevitable consequence of high-stakes standardized testing, and it’s been happening here for more than a decade.  A former Texas governor might have made No Child Left Behind the law of the land once he got to the White House, but back here that bill is best understood as a Freudian slip. We’ve been leaving children behind when Texas officials made the 10th-grade standardized test the sole measure of how the state rated high schools under the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam.

Dr. Linda McNeil of Rice University first noticed this phenomenon almost a decade ago when she noticed that every year about 70,000 kids were disappearing between the 9th and 10th grades. Statewide, 30% of the kids who start Texas high schools don’t finish, and most of those leave before the 10th grade.

“The high number of dropouts under this system are not unintended consequences or accidental side effects of the system,” wrote Dr. McNeil. “They are the result of the system when it is working as it is intended. In fact the system only works, that is, only produces rising scores on the state’s standardized tests, when these losses occur.”

High-stakes testing is a product of the dot-com era when we all bought Enron stock and named business schools after Ken Lay. That, says McNeil, is where we went wrong with education reform.

“To adopt a single-indicator system to measure a complex enterprise, whether an energy trading company or the state’s public schools, is to invite the temptation to hype that indicator, to do anything to keep it propped up, to make sure it carries an image of success,” wrote Dr. McNeil. “One way Enron kept its stock price high was to carry its losses on a separate set of ledgers.”

Put simply, Texas keeps at-risk kids from taking high-stakes tests for the same reason Enron hid debt in offshore shell corporations—for the money. The problem with this system is there is no bankruptcy protection for the 30% of the population that grows up without a high school diploma, unless you count our prison system.

Rick Perry’s Texas Education Agency cleared Garcia of similar accusations in 2010, but the FBI wasn’t as kind. Their investigation resulted in big fines and a 3.5-year prison sentence for Garcia. If there’s any real justice, he should have to help his fellow inmates get their GEDs. But why should we make an example of him? If we don’t stop high-stakes testing, we’re all to blame.