Friday, January 14, 2005

TAKS Report Leads to Blanket Labeling

by Bob Ray Sanders
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Staff Writer

I may live to regret this column.

If so, I will gladly and sadly -- and there is no contradiction here -- admit it, apologize for my doubts and yet continue to work to make things better in public education despite the critics who want to see it destroyed.

Based on recent news reports, there may be a scandal going on in Texas schools that would rival any in the history of the state.

From my vantage point, which admittedly is limited to my experiences with public schools as a former student and frequent visitor, there may be an overreaction to a set of facts that has caused some to accuse thousands of Texas public schoolchildren of being the beneficiaries of large-scale cheating.

At the same time, school districts, administrators and the Texas Education Agency are suspected of being, at the very least, complicit in this mass conspiracy to deceive parents, taxpayers, lawmakers and government officials about just how well students are performing in our schools.

In the past few weeks, the word cheating has been thrown around more than a worn-out rag doll at an overcrowded nursery school.

And, frankly, it bothers me.

The concerns stem from reports in The Dallas Morning News that an extensive "investigation" of standardized test results by the newspaper has revealed "suspect scores at nearly 400 Texas schools." Those schools being scrutinized are ones "with radical swings in student test performance," according the paper.

Words like investigation and suspect imply wrongdoing, and thus many people throughout the state, including legislators and education officials, are already using the word cheating to describe what has happened.

Add to those charges that several large school districts have begun "cheating investigations" and that the Texas Rangers are getting involved, then we come to believe that by all means very serious crimes have been committed.

That may be.

From what I can tell, the implication is either that teachers got access to the test beforehand and taught it to the kids or that the students were somehow assisted during the exam.

It would not surprise me to learn, considering the amount of pressure educators are under to produce better results in the classroom, that a few principals and teachers have bent or broken the rules -- cheated, if you will.

But I would be very surprised to learn of wholesale conspiracies in the number of schools suggested by the recent news reports.

The Fort Worth school district, I'm told, has eight schools that are being re-evaluated because of their test scores. I know those schools, and I'm very familiar with one of them.

You see, I spend a lot of time in our schools doing everything from advising journalism students and speaking at Black History Month programs to announcing words at elementary spelling bees. In addition, for the past few years I've helped out at several fourth-grade writing camps where the students were preparing for that dreaded Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Most of the schools where I've assisted in the camps are in low-income and predominantly minority areas, and I'd be willing to bet that most schools that are now being "investigated" would fit that same profile.

My experience, especially in the writing workshops, has been that many fourth-graders in the Fort Worth schools have a better command of punctuation and grammar rules than many college students I have taught over the years.

I see students working hard, because there are teachers and administrators who are demanding that they work hard. They are performing at high levels because we now have educators expecting them to achieve.

When I leave a writing camp, having quizzed the kids for more than an hour, I have no doubt at all that the vast majority will pass the TAKS. Because, you see, I have seen them in action.

The suggestion that minority and low-income kids who achieve somehow cheated smacks of snobbish elitism at best and -- yes, I dare say it -- racism at worst.

These accusations also have to be demoralizing to those educators who have gone far beyond what is required of them to teach these students. I wrote recently about a young teacher at one of the Fort Worth schools in question and the long hours he spends with the kids after school and on Saturdays to keep them up to speed.

It seems that at a time when we're talking about rewarding teachers for performance, we're talking about labeling them "cheaters" if their students perform too well on standardized tests.

Before I started writing this column, I went to my video library and pulled out a movie called Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips.

The film, based on a true story, is about a teacher in a predominantly Hispanic high school in east Los Angeles.

He started teaching students basic math, moved on to algebra against the advice of others and proceeded to calculus.

"The students will rise to the level of expectation," the teacher tells his colleagues in the film.

To prepare his students for an advanced-placement test in calculus and prepare them for college, he, too, had them working before school, after school and on Saturdays.

When all the students passed the test, they were accused of -- you guessed it -- cheating. To prove they had not cheated, the were retested under the watchful eye of outside monitors.

We ask our teachers and our students to stand and deliver.

Yet, when they do -- when they exceed our expectations -- we quickly want to cut their legs from under them and knock them back down to size.

If there are cheaters out there, they ought to be exposed and punished.

If there are others who have been wrongly accused, as I suspect there are, then we owe them our sincerest apology.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. (817) 390-7775


  1. Bob Ray Sanders makes several good points. I am wondering if this issue about "cheating" is really about cheating? I don't think people condone cheating. If we were to look at the political views of the various participants in this discussion about cheating on the TAKS tests, I think we could begin to see what the real conversation is about. It is likely about differences of opinion and perceptions of the testing and accountability system. It is likely about the frustrations of the professionals involved in trying to teach and support the kids to be successful. For others it may be about debunking the school system so that changes can be made. No one condones cheating, so what is this issue really about?

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