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Texas Offers Hard Lessons on School Accountability

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At some schools they’re throwing pep rallies, complete with marching bands, cheerleaders and custom-written chants to whip up student spirit. On other campuses, principals throw school-wide pizza bashes, pledging to repeat the favor if their pupils do them proud. At one school, children got movie passes in successful practice sessions and heard murmured coaching from their teachers during the real thing.

This is not football. This is high-stakes testing, and throughout Texas it is dominating school life because its consequences are so great.

Though cheaters are the minority among Texas school districts, concern over the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, recently hit an extreme in Austin, where officials at five schools allegedly changed student data to hide 16 low scores. Last week, in a highly unusual step, a grand jury indicted the entire Austin Independent School District, which could face fines of up to $160,000, for document tampering. The deputy superintendent, who was also indicted, faces fines and up to one year in jail if found guilty.

Only days earlier, a probe of erased test answers prompted demands from school officials for the resignation of three teachers in Houston and a principal and teacher in nearby Fort Bend.

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At a time when states, including California, are studiously mimicking Texas’ system of rigorous accountability tests, the TAAS scandals have prompted grim I-told-you-so’s from some in the education field. The problem, they say, is not testing itself, but the mighty influence the results now wield on school funding, curriculum and the very jobs of employees.

“We are not against testing. Of course not. You have to have some sort of standard,” said Annette Cootes, a spokeswoman for the Texas State Teachers Assn. “But when it becomes so high-stakes that principals are being told wholesale, ‘you will get the scores up or you will be fired’ . . . when you have that much pressure, [cheating] is bound to happen.”

A national pioneer in school accountability testing, Texas got its first push from none other than Ross Perot. Chairing a school reform commission in the early 1980s, Perot goaded Texas business leaders to back a performance-based approach to public schools, modeled on business principles. Success would be quantified by results: hence the annual standardized TAAS tests.

Initiated in 1990, the program has shown signs of dramatic success. Since the most rigorous testing began in 1994, the percentage of Texas students passing all parts of the test rose from 56% to 78% by last year. In 1995, the test results classed 34 Texas school districts as “low performing;” last year, that number dropped to four.

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Schools Nationwide Embrace Concept

The idea has spread to schools across the country. Currently, almost every state except Iowa has accountability or achievement tests, close to 20 have mandatory graduation exit tests and the same number of states pose sanctions or rewards depending on performance.

Texas schoolchildren, who scribble in their first TAAS answer bubbles in the third grade, don’t really feel its effects for seven years, at which point passing becomes a graduation requirement.

But for school administrators, the consequences of high scores--or failure--are immediate. Poor showings can mean funding cutbacks, public humiliation, potential school closures. In districts including Houston, principals of low-scoring schools have been demoted and can face dismissal. If a school’s TAAS scores are low, even gym teachers now can suffer lowered job evaluations.

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Schools that rate the coveted “exemplary,” of four possible rankings, by contrast, trumpet the news on marquees. Teachers receive bonuses of up to $650. They are lionized by TV news and grateful parents and lauded by local officials. And triumphant administrators can net serious bonuses, such as the $25,000 available to Houston superintendent Rod Paige if his district excels.

Not surprisingly, TAAS pressure now shapes the curriculum for Texas’ 7,000 public schools. Students take frequent practice tests, with tutorials and remedial classes for those who do badly. Urging them forward, some principals throw raucous pep rallies or pledge certificates for McDonald’s if school scores shine.

Educators differ on whether the pressure is positive.

Darvin Winick, a Texas management consultant who has helped California install its own accountability system, praises TAAS’ influence. If the pressure is destructive, he argues rhetorically, then schools should also abandon competitions like debate team and football.

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“There is no evidence of damage to the school system from the TAAS,” he said. “They can say that tests don’t measure everything--that’s absolutely true. But if kids can’t read, do other things matter?”

Economist Laurence Toenjes, a test analyst at the University of Houston, also supports the tests’ widespread influence. “My bottom line for the system is that school districts and schools that historically haven’t done too well are now getting exposed,” he said. “Without a testing system, there was no way the public could really know.”

Critics Point to ‘Borderline’ Practices

But detractors complain the pressure to quantify success is distorting schools’ ethical and academic values. Texas’ disgraced educators, they contend, are only the rattle of a pressure cooker at full boil.

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“Instead of a full curriculum, you get the part of the curriculum that teachers or principals or superintendents know is going to get tested,” said Monty Neill of the Center for Clear and Open Testing in Massachusetts, which calls for less emphasis on test scores. “There are certainly a lot of practices which, if they are not cheating, are borderline.”

At one Houston school, for example, a principal who stressed test-taking “strategies” such as highlighting key words doled out movie tickets and popcorn to students who used the technique on practice tests. During the actual test, school investigators learned, teachers would whisper “Use the strategies,” to children not following the method.

Gayle Fallon, president of Houston’s Federation of Teachers, said her organization had heard reports for years about fallout from TAAS pressure. Teachers at Kashmere Gardens Elementary School, whose principal was asked to resign after a cheating investigation, “were calling us and saying kids they knew couldn’t read at all were scoring in the 90th percentile,” Fallon said. “They were talking about special education kids, and kids who were absent on the day of the test, who came up with great scores.”

Texas is not the only state where standardized tests have raised questions. Federal officials are now investigating whether sharp improvements on test scores in Kentucky and other states were distorted because special education students were excluded.

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In California, an accountability law passed this year requires most public schools to be ranked according to new indices by July 1. The indices will set improvement targets for each school based on test scores, attendance rates for pupils and teachers and graduation rates.

The rankings will make the lowest-performing schools eligible for assistance programs, but consistent failure to meet improvement targets can also mean staff reassignment or the principal’s removal.

The California Teachers Assn. opposed the law, saying mechanisms are not yet in place to collect all the data. “We have serious concerns about making test results too much the focus of such a high-stakes accountability tool,” said Mike Myslinksi of the CTA.

Texas Official Fears Cheating Is Inevitable

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The new ranking system will rely heavily on results from the Stanford 9 test already in use. Though each school district polices its own testing with help from publisher Harcourt Educational Measurement, a Harcourt official said a preregistration mechanism helps thwart potential tampering.

But Cootes, of the teachers group, said the spectacle of educators cheating on exams may be unavoidable when tests can mean so much.

“It is driving our curriculum, our school day, everything but our buses,” she said of the TAAS. “It’s just eating up our lives, and it’s eating up our children’s lives.”

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Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this story.

Previous Times coverage of the pressures created by standardized tests in California’s schools is available on The Times’ Web site at: https://www.latimes.com/tests


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