Saturday, January 08, 2005

What Texas' test-cheating allegations should tell us

I just noticed at all three news items I’ve sent out are about cheating or bribery in education. I’ve got Hank Williams’ tune, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” spinning around in my head right now.

Seriously, the systemic problem here is that the testing system doubles as both an “assessment” (testing) and monitoring system—monitoring the behavior of the adults of the system. Particularly in poor and minority schools that are subject to the “gaze” of central office, numbers-based accountability manages the behavior of the adults in the system by pressuring them to perform. The rhetoric gives the impression that all children are finally being taught; however, the reality is that this edict often translates into cheating as seen below, as well as dumbed-down routinized, test-driven, ratings-focused pedagogy. However, practiced and normalized in some contexts, the latter should also be construed as institutionally approved cheating. This broadened definition of cheating, of course, renders it a ubiquitous problem throughout our state and nation. Logically, this suggests a need to systemically separate these two functions—of “assessment” (testing) and monitoring adults’ (Teachers, Principals, etc.) behavior. The state, however, will export the crisis to the particular schools/districts in question rather than admit to a flawed design. My book, LEAVING CHILDREN BEHIND looks at all of this.

My two bits for this morning. Everybody have a great weekend!



What Texas' test-cheating allegations should tell us

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Quiet on the set. Dim the house lights. Cue "applause." And now to Camera 1. The contestant is sweaty-lipped. First question, please.

We say that what we do when putting students under the glare of high-stakes testing is "for the children." The truth is, it's for the cameras. More appropriately, it's for the sponsors — the politicians who sell their brand of "accountability" to the home audience.

On that count, the masses should be in an uproar. If the game-show scandals of the 1950s drew a nation's attention, the test-cheating allegations of the 2000s in Texas should get as much. Because it's not a game. And Texas has helped write the rules for the rest of the country.

An investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that state test scores by 200 public schools across Texas, including some touted by the Bush administration as paragons of the learning curve, don't stand up. The very students who polished off the apple in one grade choked on it in subsequent grades.

The impulse, of course, is simply to remove the cheating educators and go on with the show. Too little thought is given to the show itself. Are we serving children? Or is this just good fiction masked as reality TV?

A small but growing number of educators, parents and, yes, students, are questioning who benefits from the whole "accountability" game. Any parent would question the benefits when the results of the end-all state test go home and he or she can hardly decipher what they show, aside from a child's adequacy or lack thereof.

For the children? No, for the show. This is not to say that crucial learning doesn't take place that translates on these state tests. It does. But ultimately these tests are about institutions and political biases seeking to legitimize themselves on a narrow template.

Is cheating rampant? Unlikely. But at least under Texas' previous test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, gaming of the test — test prep — was so rampant as to make results more than suspect.

I once sat in on a "TAAS writing" workshop in which a "TAAS writing expert" told teachers how to get their fourth-graders to ace the writing portion of the test. The result was writing that was passably poor — repetitive and formulaic. Unbelievably, now the state urges teachers to avoid some of the very habits this exercise drilled into so many grade-schoolers.

When classes were drilled and drilled on TAAS work sheets, essentially slowing everyone down so that the slowest would keep up, it wasn't cheating of the "Quiz Show" variety. But students with skills at or above grade level were being cheated out of true education.

Seemingly, that's less of a problem with the tougher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills — TAKS. But with a more demanding and encompassing test comes the problem of keeping up with state mandates and doing so in a school year in which learning time often is sacrificed to assessment time.

Sometimes grade-school teachers who spend extra time on one academic area, based on a class's need, fall behind in addressing another.

One response to this in some districts has been so-called midcourse testing, district-generated tests to see if a class is on track. This means sometimes that students are tested on material to which they haven't been exposed. (And because of these tests, the class has even less time to expose them.)

The biggest problem with all of this top-down testing is that the diagnostic function of the test often is lost. In effect, the students are being used to grade the teacher or the curriculum or to justify policies that don't stand up as sound pedagogy.

And why? So some schools can be declared "failing" and some "exemplary." You know, the old ratings game. Lights. Cameras. Applause. Just who's cheating whom?

Young is editorial page editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Contact him at

Find this article at:
For those who are interested, you can purchase the book either at or you can go to the link to my book page at the State University of New York Press:

Leaving Children Behind
How "Texas-style" Accountability Fails Latino Youth
Angela Valenzuela - Editor
SUNY series, The Social Context of Education
$73.50 Hardcover - 320 pages
Release Date: 11/18/2004
ISBN: 0-7914-6239-0 $24.95 Paperback - 320 pages
Release Date: 11/18/2004
ISBN: 0-7914-6240-4

Argues for a more valid and democratic approach to assessment and accountability.
The federal government has based much of its education policies on those adopted in Texas. This book examines how "Texas-style" accountability—the notion that decisions governing retention, promotion, and graduation should be based on a single test score—fails Latina/o youth and their communities. The contributors, many of them from Texas, scrutinize state policies concerning high-stakes testing and provide new data that demonstrate how Texas' current system of testing results in a plethora of new inequalities. They argue that Texas policies exacerbate historic inequities, fail to accommodate the needs and abilities of English language learners, and that the dramatic educational improvement attributed to Texas' system of accountability is itself questionable. The book proposes a more valid and democratic approach to assessment and accountability that would combine standardized examinations with multiple sources of information about a student's academic performance.

"With all of the emphasis on accountability and testing in our schools, too many of us have forgotten to ask what the real effects of such movements actually are. Leaving Children Behind is a powerful analysis of why such questions must be asked by anyone who cares about the relationship between current school reforms and the production of inequalities." — Michael W. Apple

"U.S. schools have been engaged in a gigantic effort to impose Texas-style test-driven reform on all U.S. schools. This book reports things are very different than they seem in Texas and helps explain the major problems in implementing President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. The richness of the contributions by major Latino scholars to this analysis should help us understand the tremendous need to diversify our faculties if we are to understand our changing society and its schools." — Gary Orfield

"Important and timely, this book reveals the 'real story' in Texas, which has become the model for the nation. There is much to be learned from this book about implementing federal policy based on the Texas model." — Patricia Gándara, coeditor of School Connections: U.S. Mexican Youth, Peers, and School Achievement

"The topic is of great importance, and it is covered from many different perspectives here, giving a rich picture of the situation." — María Estela Brisk, coauthor of Situational Context of Education: A Window into the World of Bilingual Learners

Contributors include Laura Alamillo, Ellen Riojas Clark, Belinda Bustos Flores, Eugene E. García, Elaine Hampton, Linda McSpadden McNeil, Raymond V. Padilla, Deborah Palmer, Kris Sloan, Richard R. Valencia, Angela Valenzuela, Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, Bruno J. Villarreal, and Celia Viramontes.

Angela Valenzuela is Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: The Accountability Debate in Texas: Continuing the Conversation
Angela Valenzuela

2. Performance-Based School Reforms and the Federal Role in Helping Schools That Serve Language-Minority Students
Jorge Ruiz de Velasco

3. Faking Equity: High-Stakes Testing and the Education of Latino Youth
Linda McSpadden McNeil

4. Texas' Second Wave of High-Stakes Testing: Anti-Social Promotion Legislation, Grade Retention, and Adverse Impact on Minorities
Richard R. Valencia and Bruno J. Villarreal

5. Playing to the Logic of the Texas Accountability System: How Focusing on "Ratings"—Not Children—Undermines Quality and Equity
Kris Sloan

6. Standardized or Sterilized? Differing Perspectives on the Effects of High-Stakes Testing in West Texas
Elaine Hampton

7. California's English-Only Policies: An Analysis of Initial Effects
Laura Alamillo, Deborah Palmer, Celia Viramontes, and Eugene E. García

8. The Centurion: Standards and High-Stakes Testing as Gatekeepers for Bilingual Teacher Candidates in the New Century
Belinda Bustos Flores and Ellen Riojas Clark

9. High-Stakes Testing and Educational Accountability as Social Constructions Across Cultures
Raymond V. Padilla

10. Accountability and the Privatization Agenda
Angela Valenzuela

© State University of New York Press •  90 State St., Suite 700 • Albany, NY 12207-1707
Tel. 518.472.5000 • Fax  518.472.5038

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