Saturday, April 02, 2005

Leaving Children Behind in Texas

Angela Valenzuela

The alleged “Texas Miracle” in education (Haney, 2000, 2001), combined
with the 2002 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary
Education Act (popularly known as the “No Child Left Behind
Act” [NCLB]), has shifted what was once an intrastate debate over educational
accountability to a national-level issue. Supporters of accountability
claim that it promotes equity by making schools teach poor
and minority children who have been historically neglected by our public
school system (see Scheurich & Skrla, 2001; Scheurich, Skrla, &
Johnson, 2000; Skrla, Scheurich, & Johnson, 2000a, 2000b). Opponents,
including the contributors to this volume, argue that the Texas
system of educational accountability has failed—and will continue to
fail—Latina/o and other minority youth and their communities.1 We interpret
Texas-style accountability as exacerbating historic inequities,
mainly through the collateral effects of state policy, but also through a
systemwide failure to accommodate the needs and abilities of Englishlanguage
learners (see the chapters by Alamillo, Palmer, Viramontes, &
García; and by Ruiz de Velasco). Moreover, as McNeil points out (see
chapter 3), the dramatic educational improvement attributed to Texas’
system of accountability is itself questionable. The state’s methods of
collecting and reporting educational data, including the critically important
high-stakes test scores, hide as much as they reveal. When the
focus is shifted to Texas’ students’ performance on nationwide tests
such as the American College Test (ACT) and Scholastic Assessment
Test (SAT) 1, or when skyrocketing dropout and projected retention
rates are factored in (see McNeil and Valencia & Villarreal), the state’s
“miracle” looks more like a mirage.
That schools should be held accountable is indisputable. This volume
does not suggest otherwise. Rather, what we question is the Texas
model of accountability. Specifically, the authors reject high-stakes testing,
the system’s centerpiece. We further contend that the Texas approach
is deeply flawed, for three interrelated reasons: for attaching high-stakes
consequences—in the areas of retention, promotion, and graduation—to
a single measure of students’ academic abilities; for attaching high-stakes
consequences to schools and districts and thereby encouraging a reductionist,
test-driven curriculum; and for promoting a uniform and objectivist
way of knowing, to the detriment of other cultures, languages, and
approaches to knowledge.
Our collective admonition to the nation is that policies supporting
high-stakes testing are harmful to all children, especially for children
from poor, minority, or non-English-speaking families.2 Indeed, these
policies curtail or compromise the very achievement the public seeks.
Moreover, state policies that attach high-stakes consequences to children’s
test scores are inherently invalid, undemocratic, and unjust
(Heubert & Hauser, 1999). They distort the process of schooling, as well,
through the creation of perverse incentives to “lose” children or limit curriculum,
or both (see the chapters by Alamillo, Palmer, Viramontes, &
García; Hampton; McNeil; Sloan; and Valencia & Villarreal). Finally,
when the test is the sole or primary arbiter in decisions with such longlasting
consequences for children, we insist that students have a right to
be assessed in a complete and fair manner, using as many criteria as may
reasonably indicate children’s cognitive abilities and potential.3
We would like to see the terms of the current debate over educational
accountability overhauled. At issue is not whether schools and districts
should be accountable, but what means should be used to
accomplish the widely shared goal of ensuring that all children receive a
high-quality education. When we allow the state to equate academic excellence
with a single test score, when we agree to tie our children’s performance
on one test to their classroom teachers’ jobs and school
administrators’ bonuses, we implicitly validate the host of values, presuppositions,
and attitudes that underlie a flawed version of accountability.
Recasting the debate, we hope, will draw necessary attention to the
questionable nature of such typically unexamined assumptions.
In calling for a new approach to the ongoing conversation about accountability,
we seek to create a larger public space for a Latina/o, researchbased
perspective and epistemology (see Padilla) in the development of a
more just assessment system.

Leaving Children Behind: How Texas Style Accountability Fails Latino Youth,
(SUNY press, 2004) Angela Valenzuela, ed.
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