Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Neeley still cheerleader, not sheriff

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley surrounded herself with a posse Monday to announce that the state of Texas is going to get tough with cheaters.

"We have zero tolerance for cheating," she said, flanked by a host of education officials and Superintendent Abe Saavedra of Houston Independent School District and Interim Dallas ISD Superintendent Larry Groppel, both of whom are shocked to learn cheating may be happening in their districts.

It would be easy to have a bit of fun at Neeley's expense. After all, she made the governor look like something of a fool when, in announcing her appointment a year ago, he bragged on the bogus statistics provided him regarding her performance as superintendent at Galena Park.

Though it is a low-income district, the governor said as she stood humbly by, 82 percent of graduates attended college. And she had doubled the number taking the SAT or ACT college-placement exams during her tenure.

SAT scores plummeted
It turned out that nobody really knew how many Galena Park seniors were going to college. The district had surveyed them, and 56 percent said they were going to college. Another 25 percent said they were going to technical or business institutes.

And it turned out the number of students taking the SAT or ACT hadn't doubled. It had gone up 53 percent — not bad, unless you noticed that the number of graduates had increased 62 percent.

Worse, scores on the ACT had dropped 7 percent and on the SAT a depressing 13 percent.

Meanwhile the percentage of Galena Park students passing a state test required of those attending community colleges plummeted from 34 percent to 18 percent.

But Neeley did improve Galena Park's performance in the one test that mattered, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. As the governor noted, she made Galena Park the state's largest "exemplary" school district.

Pressure cooker
She did it by being — her word — a cheerleader.

And by telling principals they would lose their positions if they didn't produce high-enough TAAS scores.

I don't know if any cheating went on in the resulting pressure cooker. I heard from students, parents and teachers, however, that the decreased performance described above was related to the single-minded focus on TAAS success.

At her news conference Monday, Neeley said, "The few who would attempt to cheat on the TAKS (the test that replaced the TAAS) or other state tests shortchange students and undermine the credibility of our state's testing program."

Nicole King, who had graduated magna cum laude from Galena Park with flying TAAS scores, couldn't break a mediocre 850 on the SAT and found herself struggling in college math.

"Since the beginning, all we were trained on was the TAAS test, that's it," she said. "We had hours of classroom time devoted on strategic ways to enhance our test scores. It's ridiculous."

She wasn't shortchanged by cheating on the test.

She was shortchanged by the district's single-minded focus on it.

But Gov. Rick Perry never expressed second thoughts on his appointment.

He wanted her, he said, "to do on the state level what she has done at Galena Park."

Some local school districts have worked on the difficult problem of maintaining a solid, broad education while meeting the demands of high-stakes testing.

But our state leaders insist on pretending there is no problem. How else to explain the fact that Texas Education Agency has three staffers assigned to investigating reports of cheating — one for every million children taking the test?

And Neeley, while trying to sound like a sheriff, couldn't subdue the cheerleader.

First she referred to the "few who would attempt to cheat." How would she know? The TEA has made no effort to determine how widespread cheating is.

Then she concluded by saying, "Don't rush to judgment just because scores on a test increase rapidly. That result is more likely to mean that it is time to celebrate, rather than investigate."

That sounds good, but it's not true.

It won't be time to celebrate, even in the unlikely event we wipe out cheating, until our graduates excel by a broad range of measures, not just the TAAS or TAKS.

Intimidating the cheaters won't make that happen. Only wise leadership from school principals on up to the president.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at -- | Section: Rick Casey
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