New Report Shows How Test-and-Punish Texas Miracle Damaged Lives of 3 El Paso Teens

In the early years after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, we were told the law was going to bring the Texas Miracle to the whole country.  Supposedly, through the imposition of standardized testing—with serious consequences for schools and educators who failed quickly to raise scores—schools across the United States would raise expectations for students, thereby improving academic achievement and closing achievement gaps among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups of students.

In The Children Left Behind, Debbie Nathan tells the stories of Sonia, Yanderier, and Leo, three students who were counseled out of Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas when school administrators predicted their TAKS scores (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) would be low, and would diminish the overall test scores by which their schools were to be rated.

As early as 2003, reporters, here and here, began questioning whether touted gains in Houston’s test scores were real.  In 2008, Linda McNeil, a professor at Rice University, published a scholarly, peer-reviewed study, Avoidable Losses: High-Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis, of the practice of pushing students out of school.  She described rigid annual performance contracts by which high school principals in Texas were required to sign away their tenure and guarantee rapid test score increases for all the subgroups whose scores were disaggregated under No Child Left Behind.  Under pressure from school leaders, the state created a waiver that permitted schools to divert students likely to fail the TAKS by refusing to promote to tenth grade any students who had failed even one semester of a required ninth grade course.  Waivers permitted schools to hold students in ninth grade sometimes indefinitely to protect the school itself from the students’ failure on the tenth grade exam.

Debbie Nathan’s very personal new article shows how high stakes test-and-punish changed the lives of three vulnerable teenagers.  She located three students who were counseled into GED programs when school administrators worried about their scores. None of them realized that Texas law protected their right to attend school until age 21.  All three eventually dropped out of school without completing any sort of diploma.  This year, after learning of their rights while being interviewed by the reporter, two of the young adults sought counseling to learn how they could return to school and finally secure a GED.

Nathan cites New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera who, “points out that as long as high-stakes testing remains policy, little can be done to completely eliminate this kind of cheating.  It’s easy for an administrator to convince a struggling 18- or 19-year-old that studying for the GED might be more productive than staying in school.”

Nathan reports that in 2013, with prodding from a new law passed by the Texas legislature, El Paso’s school district has made it a priority to find students who were pushed-out and to provide compensatory services.  But as we learn in the stories of Sonia, Yanderier, and Leo, the loss of the opportunity to complete high school limits not only the chance for employment but also self respect and hope.


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