September 17, 2004

Commentary

A Texas Miracle or Smoke and Mirrors?

By Dan Wever

I just saw a 60 minutes program about how Houston cheated on their results of drop out students in order to help Bush win the election by keeping the Texas Miracle alive. George W. Bush’s victory in the presidential election of 2000 was in part helped greatly by his claim to improving education and test scores in Texas during his Governorship. His claim that the “Texas Miracle”, the improved test scores on standardized tests in Texas, was led by him while he was governor of Texas. The public believed him.

What is the true story and how did it affect many thousands of our Hispanic students then and is continuing to influence their lives today?

I had been studying the results of the Texas standardized test TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) for many years and did not like what I was seeing. I ran for the school board, won, and became President of the Board of Trustees of a school district with over 64,000 students of which 77% were Hispanic.

Let me start my story in 1992-1993. The new TAAS test was going to be administered and counted for real. Many times before a test is implemented it has been “benchmarked” or checked out in previous years to see how it is going to work. This was the real thing and people in education including our two large school district superintendents had petitioned the Commissioner of Education to exempt the LEP (Limited English Proficient) students from the test. The Commissioner at the time refused to give the exemption saying we needed to find out where our students were.

The roof fell in on the results. El Paso ISD had 7 low performing schools and Ysleta I think had 11. All over the state Chicken Little was running around crying the sky is falling the sky is falling. My alma mater Alta Vista elementary was one of the “low performing” schools in the El Paso ISD. Both Superintendents threw money and programs at the offending schools as had never been seen before.

The next year’s test rolled around and again our Superintendents asked the Commissioner of Education to exempt the LEP students from the test. This time he gave in due to political pressure I would suspect. It did not look good to have so many Texas schools labeled “Low Performing.” The results of the test came back and guess what. The 7 El Paso ISD schools all came in as ACCEPTABLE and all but a couple came back OK in the Ysleta ISD. Everyone was happy that we had conquered the “low performing” demon and we had prevailed in our fight for education.

Light bulbs went off in the heads of the testing people and politicians with the realization that the test scores could be manipulated. The passing of the TAAS test became the overpowering central focus of education not only in El Paso but in the whole state. The next year ‘94-‘95 the LEP exemption was still in effect and my school, Alta Vista exempted 47.8% of the students for LEP and another 2.5% for ARD (Special Education). These exemptions are not for kids from Mexico but rather a majority are native born United States citizens.

This is the same school year that George Bush became governor of Texas. It became imperative that the testing in Texas continue to improve as the long range planning would be of course to use the “Texas Miracle” as an Educational plank in Mr. Bush’s bid for the presidency.

‘95-‘96 was more of the same except the exemptions were tightened up and the people in charge no longer were able to exempt just anyone. At Alta Vista only 21.8% were exempted however the ARD had risen to 6.5%. I mention this because in other parts of the state this figure became the central exemption especially around Houston.

Ron Paige parlayed exemptions and dropout statistics into a Secretary of Education position. When I first saw many of the ARD exemptions around Houston I thought there must be a bad gene in the area because their ARD exemptions were as high as our LEP exemptions. Of course they did not have this number of ARD exemptions until pressure was put on everyone to pass at any cost. Districts and schools were caught cheating by the TEA (Texas Education Agency) but most were hushed up throughout the years.

Something had to be done to keep the public creditability alive. Along comes the Spanish test. It was decided to give the 3rd and 4th graders who might or might not be LEP that the test be given in Spanish this year ‘96-‘97. What a great idea, the LEP exemptions dropped to zero at Alta Vista. We are finally going to test all of our students except for the ARD exemptions and we can tell how they are doing. Right? Wrong!

The tests given in Spanish were not counted in the Accountability ratings given to the public. Of course the public is never told this and they think that the good ratings are great and really are a “Texas Miracle.” People flew in from out of state to study how a state with such a large percentage of LEP Hispanics was scoring so high on the standardized test. In the meantime many of our Hispanic students are still being pushed to the back of the educational bus because if they are not going to be counted why bother with them.

Of course the presidential election is getting closer and it is imperative that the “The Texas Miracle” continue. In 1998-1999 they finally started counting the results from the 3rd and 4th graders who were tested in Spanish in the Accountability ratings. Of course this is the year that the LEP exemptions start to go higher again. The hoax had thus been carried on long enough not to cause any negative press for Governor Bush in his quest for the presidency. Texas changed from the TAAS to the TAKS during the President’s first term. The changes meant that no new results were taken for a couple of years and this year again just before the election the Texas Miracle continues.

All of the Spanish test scores are now being counted in the Accountability ratings, but the children that take the Spanish test don’t have to score as high as the ones that take the test in English. Again I guess they feel that Spanish test takers need a little help because they expect less from these children. The Texas Education Agency sent out a press release that announced that 72% of the 11th grade students passed the tests necessary to graduate from High School. “These results are awesome,” said Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley. “What a way to end the school year! Students and teachers worked hard all year and these results confirm the progress our schools are making.” I can still hear George Bush’s statement “I’m going to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The truth is that the Texas Miracle was made using hard bigotry, smoke and mirrors and a true lack of caring for our students especially our minority students. The passing scores on the 11th grade test this year that everyone is so proud of are as follows: Math 40, Science 43, Social Studies 40, History and English Language Arts 49. And if 55% of the students pass using these scores then the district is considered ACCEPTABLE. Can you imagine if 55% of the students score no more than a 40 on a math test then they are ACCEPTABLE.

Hispanics helped elect George Bush in 2000 more than anyone realizes. The only problem was it was not voters but rather children who today will probably ask the question. Porqué se supone que tengo que viajar en la parte trasera del autobús?

Mr Wever can be emailed at: fwever1@elp.rr.com

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