So Much for No Child Left Behind

School test scores rise as more low-scoring students drop out.

A few years ago, I signed on as a volunteer tutor at my local elementary. I was matched with a student — I'll call him Eddie — who was failing miserably at both the math and English portions of the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills), a statewide minimal skills test that was the precursor to today's TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills).

I took him on in math, it being the worst of all his subjects, and began a series of one-on-one weekly meetings. It soon became apparent that while Eddie's multiplication and division skills were very shaky, his ability to subtract once we got into double digits was no better. Asked to compute 25 minus 17, Eddie's eyes darted around the room looking for an escape hatch. There were too many numbers to count on his fingers.

Word problems only ramped up the agony.

Researcher Linda McSpadden McNeil says some kids had to take ninth-grade courses — even ones they'd passed — over and over again.
Daniel Kramer
Researcher Linda McSpadden McNeil says some kids had to take ninth-grade courses — even ones they'd passed — over and over again.

We continued meeting. I took him back to subtraction and then up to multiplication and division. I talked with his teacher, who'd show me more failed papers, and then Eddie and I would go over them.

He began to improve. I wasn't the perfect teacher but I was someone paying extra attention. The grades on his class math tests weren't stellar, but better.

The week after the TAAS, I showed up for my session with Eddie. Of course the scores wouldn't be reported for a while, but we were optimistic. Then the teacher asked what I was doing there. The TAAS is done, she said. You're through.

There were several weeks still to go in the school year. Eddie was still Eddie. He still needed a lot of extra help with his math and his English and probably other subjects as well.

As I walked out of the school after being dismissed, I realized I hadn't been helping a kid. I'd been helping a kid prepare for the state test, which really meant that I'd been helping that school toward a higher accountability rating so the teacher and the principal could be sure of their jobs.

I thought of Eddie when I was talking with Rice professor Linda McSpadden McNeil, who has co-authored a study showing that the increase in Texas's statewide test scores directly correlates to lower graduation rates.

In fact, it contributes to them, she believes.

Scores have been rising, not because all these students have suddenly mastered the TAKS, but because low-scoring students have been forced out by administrators whose own job success depends on good student scores.

After all, who wants to carry an Eddie on his record?
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Originally the idea of No Child Left Behind was that by using standardized testing, the weak areas in a student's education could be discovered and rectified. Like a diagnostic test on a car's engine, problems would be identified and repaired. Teachers would be retrained to become better educators. No child, especially no minority child, would be overlooked, and because of that, a lot of minority leaders bought into the change big time.

In Texas, we didn't have to wait for No Child Left Behind. By the time it was signed into law in 2002, our kids had already experienced years of state tests from TABS to TEAMS to TAAS. In fact, NCLB was modeled on the Texas program — then being referred to as the Texas Miracle — and basically used the model that HISD employed (HISD Superintendent Rod Paige tied the state test scores to principals' performance evaluations). All this was endorsed by the former governor and now President George W. Bush. According to NCLB, all students should be performing at grade level by 2014.

The reality is that NCLB has saddled public school students with unending tests and drills. With practice tests (starting with learning how to "bubble" in kindergarten) and the tests themselves, Texas students now may spend 36 days in testing hell each year, out of 185 days they have to go to school, according to a recent article in the TSTA Advocate, a publication of the Texas State Teachers Association. (This doesn't include tutoring, taking field tests to help the Texas Education Agency develop future tests or taking re-tests.) Administrators like to insist that the testing matches what the curriculum is teaching, but that's obviously not the case or else why would the normal course of studies be shoved aside for practice drills?

And if the tests are supposed to be helpful, why are they given toward the end of the school year instead of at the start, when there would be time for teachers to actually teach to the deficits?

There are honors/GT science classes in Texas at the high school level doing absolutely no lab work, or at least none until after the spring TAKS tests. According to Sherrie Matula, a veteran teacher who's running for a state representative seat out of Pasadena, "project" work in which students write about scientific principles often replaces any hands-on experimentation. There is no time (and little money) for lab work that more and more these days is reserved for college students, she says.

In the study, entitled "Avoidable Losses: High-Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis," McNeil (with the Rice Center for Education) along with Eileen Coppola and Judy Radigan from Rice and Julian Vasquez Heilig from the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed data from more than 271,000 students in an unnamed urban school district over a seven-year period ending in 2002. They not only ran numbers, they interviewed students and educators and recorded their sessions.

McNeil refuses to disclose what school district was studied. In presentations she has made around the state, teachers from several big-city districts have approached her, certain she is talking about them.

In whatever urban district they did study, researchers found that 60 percent of African-American students, 75 percent of Hispanic students and 80 percent of ESL (English as a Second Language) students did not graduate within five years. They found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent and figured that each year, Texas high schools lose at least 135,000 youth before graduation.

According to their assessment: 25 percent of Anglo students who should have graduated, fail to do that every year. The percentage of African Americans who fail to graduate is closer to 45 percent overall and greater than 50 percent for African-American boys. Hispanics graduate at slightly under 50 percent.

The discrepancy between the graduation rates they reported and the TEA's official dropout rates in the 2-3 percent range are due to the way the state classifies dropouts, the study says. The state does not classify as dropouts students who leave school because they are pregnant or go to jail or say they are going to Mexico, or say they will be home-schooled or that they are going to take their GED some day. There are no procedures to follow through and see if a student actually does any of those things, even though Texas has a student ID numbering system that operates statewide, McNeil says.

Last week, the Bush administration announced it would change the way graduation rates are being reported and that it would require all states to do so in the same way. The press conference followed the release of a national study done by America's Promise Alliance (chaired by Alma Powell and founded by her husband Colin Powell) that found only about half of the students in the main school systems in the nation's 50 largest cities graduate from high school.

In Houston, the graduation rate was listed at 61.6 percent or 9.3 percentage points lower than its nearby suburbs. The graduation rate for HISD was listed at 54.6 percent by America's Promise ­Alliance.

That would be termed an unacceptable loss ratio in most businesses.
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In Texas, according to the study, a crucial tool employed by principals to hike their scores has been getting a waiver from the state that changes the way students are promoted to the next grade in high school.

"A school under this waiver could base grade promotion on different criteria, such as having to pass four core courses rather than gaining credits," the study says. Teachers and principals knew this policy would cause students to be intentionally held back in the ninth grade. "The rhetoric surrounding this policy centered on 'making sure students are ready for the state 10th grade test,'" the study said.

A student could finish his freshman year and be one credit or even one-half credit shy of what he needed to be a sophomore, and end up officially classified a freshman for the next year. That next year, that student would again take the ninth grade TAKS tests, not the tenth.

Terry Abbott, spokesman for the Houston Independent School District, contradicted this, writing in an e-mail that at least in the HISD "Principals are not allowed to employ a waiver to hold students back." In a later e-mail he wrote that this statement applied for this school year and last, but "at some times in the past ...there were some waivers approved limiting classification to grade 10 to students who had completed certain core courses. The purpose of those waivers was to make sure that students who had not mastered basic core courses would not be reclassified based on having completed a large number of elective courses or local credit courses."

He also insisted that Houston's test scores have improved because the district "is focusing less on accountability ratings and more on individual student growth" and that HISD students are also improving on other national tests.

Teachers and principals interviewed for the accountability study said they felt to apply for waivers was "cheating" but eventually bowed to the pressure for higher test scores. One principal said, "the waiver identified the retained students as 'losers' and pushed them to leave school," the study said. At one school where the waivers were introduced, withdrawal rates of students went from 18 percent to 40 percent in just two years. Students who were retained in ninth grade came to be known as "dropbacks," and their repeating classes were called dropback classes with dropback teachers — enough stigma to go around for everyone, it would seem.

One student told researchers: "Well, that last two years that I was in ninth grade, there were finally classes that I passed and got credit for. But they would put me in the same classes again, so then they would catch that later in the year, which they couldn't do nothing about it, you know."

Another said he was driven out of school by his repeated placement in the algebra class he had passed.

"Oh, yeah, they had me taking algebra forever. I passed the first year, so in the second year I just decided not to go. I tried to get it [the course schedule] fixed, but they wouldn't fix it. So after the third week trying to get it fixed, I just stopped going."
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Other than the results themselves, probably the most publicity about Texas test scores in recent years has concerned cheating. Usually it involves teachers and administrators fixing score sheets or suggesting answers.

It doesn't take cheating to make this system bad, McNeil says. Thousands of kids are leaving school because educators are complying with the regulations on state accountability, she says. Administrators are trying to raise scores. If they don't, they lose their bonuses. Students are sometimes encouraged to leave, McNeil says, told that maybe it would be better if they took their GED later. Problem is, if you're a ninth grader you've got to wait a few years before you can take the GED, and what do you do with your life in the meantime? Or they're steered into "local" courses — TAKS prep — that don't count toward their graduation requirements.

Holding a student back one time means there's a 50 percent chance he won't graduate, McNeil says. Hold him back twice and that moves to 95 percent, she says.

The testing system also forces teachers out, McNeil and Sherrie Matula say. "We're killing the brand-new teachers," Matula says. If their students' test scores aren't good at the first benchmark and then don't improve enough, suddenly their probationary contract is not renewed, Matula says.

In the TSTA Advocate article entitled "Fixing a Badly Flawed System," Dr. Paul Henley with TSTA argues that "tests have now become the primary focus of public education rather than providing students a broad-based, quality education." Principals are no longer being hired based on leadership skills, but on whether they can get those test scores up, Henley says.

There are no rewards for retaining these kids other than moral and ethical ones.

The accountability study echoes this. Principals don't have tenure anymore; they don't have a collectively bargained contract. They get bonuses if test scores go up enough, nothing if they don't. Probably the only thing that keeps them from being replaced is the nationwide shortage of principals.

The problems with standardized testing and school accountability aren't, of course, just limited to Texas. The Texas report references other studies showing that, for instance, New York City's high schools may be pushing out low performers to increase the schools' overall scores. After Massachusetts began requiring a high school exit exam, not only did graduation rates drop but ninth-grade retention rates increased, as did the percentage of missing tenth graders.

The argument could be made that this is all to the good, that now a high school diploma means something once again. How then to explain the number of remedial courses being offered in colleges for graduates of Texas high schools who can't do collegiate-level work?

And as the study found, "increased frequency of testing...dulls students to the testing process and diminishes the seriousness with which they regard tests prior to the 11th grade exit test." Didn't we see that this year with the Fort Bend ISD offering freshmen and sophomores exemptions from some of their final exams if they did well on the TAKS in a desperate attempt to get these students to take the before-exit-level tests seriously?

Do we really want to continue with a graduation rate hovering around 50 percent­?

And rather than helping minorities by implementing these tests, the test scores are reported by racial subgroups, causing schools to identify these students as "potential liabilities," the study says.

Some school districts in other states are talking about opting out of NCLB. They'll give up federal funds, sure, but it may be worth it.

However well intentioned statewide testing was at the start, it is clear that it has corrupted the relationship between principals and students. It isn't better educating students and it's driving them and a good number of teachers out of our schools. It's time to demand something better.

margaret.downing@houstonpress.com

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