Clarification--An April 21 article about Texas Gov. George W. Bush's education record said the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test was inaugurated in 1994. The test was first given in 1990, but between 1992 and 1994 the state changed the grades tested and the time of year the test was given, and made educators accountable for students' scores. The first year to which later test results can be compared is 1994. (Published 04/27/2000)
A cornerstone of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign is what state officials call "the Texas miracle": the impressive gains that Texas students, particularly minority children, have achieved on test scores during his tenure. A Bush campaign ad touts his school reforms as "the most fundamental in a generation."
But a growing corps of skeptics, including some education experts and Texas teachers, believe that Bush's record on education is less than miraculous. They say Texas's standardized tests are too easy and that aggressive test-drilling inflates children's scores and turns some Texas schools into drab factories for test preparation.
As evidence of his claim, Bush points to the skyrocketing scores of Texas children on a standardized test that the governor has strongly promoted, and in particular to the narrowing gap between the scores of minorities and whites. Picking up on initiatives launched by his predecessor, Gov. Ann Richards, and billionaire Ross Perot, Bush has put in place an "accountability" system under which educators' careers rise and fall depending in part on how well children fare on that test. He also has increased state spending on schools and tightened curriculum standards.
It is difficult to evaluate all the Texas officials' claims about soaring test scores. But it is clear that some of their key assertions aren't backed up by other tests issued on a national scale. While Texas says it has dramatically shrunk the gap between minority and white students' scores, a test used across the country called the NAEP showed they haven't closed that "achievement gap"--in fact, it suggests the gulf between the state's white and black fourth-graders widened over time. Some experts say this suggests many of Texas's gains result from intense drilling to pass the state's test, and from the quality of the test itself.
"The Texas miracle in education is a myth," said Walter Haney, a Boston College researcher who studies test statistics. Texas schools, he said, have some of the nation's highest dropout rates, and the system of accountability that Bush touts helps drive tens of thousands of students, mostly minorities, to quit school each year--a loss that in turn boosts test scores, he said. "Texas has got to seriously think about the tradeoffs here."
Some education experts and teachers say the emphasis on tests also undermines educational quality. Teachers whose careers depend on raising minority pupils' test scores often neglect such activities as creative writing, literature and science labs, these specialists say.
One largely Hispanic high school in Houston with virtually no library spent $18,000--almost its entire instructional budget--for commercial test-preparation materials that replaced teachers' lessons, according to two researchers, Linda McNeil of Rice University and Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas.
"While middle-class children in white, middle-class schools are reading literature, learning a variety of forms of writing, studying mathematics aimed at problem-solving and conceptual understanding, . . . poor and minority children are devoting class time to practice test materials," the researchers, who have a decade's experience in Texas schools, said in a report published by Harvard University. "This system of testing is therefore not the benign 'reform' its political advocates claim."
Since the 1994 inauguration of the state's standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), many schools, especially in working-class areas with low pass rates, are virtually handed over to "test prep" from New Year's through April, when the tests are given.
Schools stage TAAS pep rallies and "TAAS camps," plus pizza parties and trips to the ballpark for students who score well on practice exams. High schools hold Friday night "lock-ins" in the gym, where students do TAAS drills until sunup. Banners, such as "22 Days Left . . .," mark the time until test day. Three years running, Houston's heavily minority Furr High School gave a randomly selected student who passed TAAS a used Ford.
Texas officials defend concentrated test coaching as an appropriate way to help pupils master the curriculum. "If kids are practicing long division so they can do well on the test, then fine," said Margaret LaMontagne, Bush's senior education aide. "These are skills they ought to know."
At the center of Bush's education program is a system under which teachers' and administrators' careers can stall if they fail to raise TAAS scores. In addition, students cannot graduate if they fail the exams.
These rules created by Bush and his predecessors "are central to closing the achievement gap" between white and minority students, said Susana Navarro, executive director of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a group that works in that city's schools. TAAS "has helped poor minority kids. . . . Lots of them for decades left public elementary schools without being able to read, write or do math. Now they're being challenged."
Bush has devoted significant resources to improving public schools. Since he took office in 1995, state education spending has risen 55 percent, to $23.3 billion. Bush achieved his school reforms with bipartisan legislative majorities and strong backing from the business community, which needed educated youth for Texas's booming economy.
"Coming from business, Bush immediately got the idea of holding people accountable for performance," said Charles Miller, a Houston money manager who has helped lead Texas school reforms.
Under reforms pushed by Bush, Texas schoolchildren cannot graduate if they fail 10th-grade TAAS tests on reading, writing and math, and later retests. Students also cannot proceed from grade to grade if they flunk the test.
In a number of school districts, administrators' job prospects--and bonuses that can total thousands of dollars--depend on which of four ranks their schools receive, from "low-performing" to "exemplary." Officials set the rankings based on school attendance, dropout rates and TAAS scores--and then publicize them. To meet TAAS targets, educators also must ensure that minority students score well--another Bush reform. Rod Paige, superintendent of Houston's school district, has received several annual bonuses of $25,000 based in part on TAAS scores.
Many of the results are striking, especially the narrowing gap between white and minority scores. Last year, 86 percent of white 10th-graders passed TAAS, up from 64 percent in 1994. More impressive are the gains by minority students--64 percent of Hispanic 10th-graders passed in 1999, compared with 34 percent five years earlier. Sixty percent of blacks passed last year, more than twice the 28 percent from 1994.
Bush supporters insist these TAAS score increases are genuine, and they cite as evidence the fact that Texas students' scores have risen on the nationwide NAEP test.
But a career education expert at the U.S. Department of Education has doubts. The official, who did not want his name used to avoid controversy, said that while Texas fourth-graders' NAEP scores improved markedly over time, older students' gains were much smaller. Moreover, the expert wrote in a report, NAEP data "do not substantiate the . . . rapidly closing [racial] gap" noted in TAAS scores.
He raised other questions, as well. Acknowledging that college board scores are an imperfect measure because taking the test is voluntary, the official points out that they have hardly changed in Texas over the years. "Texas was near the national average on many measures of educational performance when TAAS was introduced, and remains there," he wrote.
A Rand Corp. education researcher, Steve Klein, has similar doubts. In 1996 he gave math tests to about 2,000 students in 20 Texas schools. Klein was curious because TAAS results suggested Texas had broken an almost invariable rule in education--that middle-class children do much better on math than poor kids. But that gap persisted in Klein's test.
"We knew something strange was going on," Klein said. He believes that without meaning to, Texas officials design TAAS tests so they're vulnerable to Texas teachers' coaching. He also thinks that kids who "prepped" for TAAS not only didn't get a deep understanding of the subject, but also weren't helped to pass non-TAAS tests.
Other factors might play a role in inflating Texas's test performance--such as outright cheating.
With careers at stake, some educators have changed students' answers to improve grades. Three Houston teachers and an administrator had to resign after they erased wrong answers and wrote in the right ones. Austin's school district was indicted last year after administrators were caught tampering with test documents.
A state panel also is investigating what many experts say is a more serious problem--deliberately underestimating dropout rates. Undercounting dropouts is in administrators' interest because the statistic counts toward a school's ranking.
The Intercultural Development Research Association, a Texas education gadfly group, said the dropout rate is many times higher than official estimates and is worsening. Over a three-year period, about 31 percent of white students quit school, as well as 49 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Hispanics, the group said.
Boston College's Haney said his research confirms that the state drastically undercounts dropouts. (Texas officials say that Haney, as well as critics McNeil and Valenzuela, have an ax to grind, because they were paid witnesses against the state in a Hispanic civil rights group's failed lawsuit alleging school bias.)
Some schools have deemed many low-scoring kids as special-education students to excuse them from TAAS, teachers said. But officials say they have cracked down on this practice, and more special-ed students are now tested with classmates.
Some educators also say the test is just too easy. Janice Taylor, a high school math teacher in Houston, said the TAAS math test taken for graduation could be passed by many fifth-graders.
Many of her 50 math seniors who passed TAAS were shocked when they did poorly on math college boards, she said. "They think they're prepared," she said. "But doing well on TAAS doesn't indicate they know what they need to go to college."
Three California mathematicians agreed. In a 1998 report, they said the TAAS math test needed for graduation was appropriate for the sixth grade. They cited this TAAS question: "Kenyon is 5 feet 6 inches tall. His sister Tenika is 7 inches taller than he is. How tall is Tenika?" Such "low expectations," they said, are "cause for concern."
Another education expert retained by the same group, the conservative Tax Research Association, compared sentence complexity and the length of passages in TAAS reading tests and concluded that most got easier over time. "There may have been no real improvement in [Texas students'] reading skills," wrote Harvard education expert Sandra Stotsky. "There may have even been a decline."
The Texas Education Agency strenuously denies Stotsky's and the mathematicians' "inaccurate, unsubstantiated" allegations and insists that TAAS tests are getting tougher.
Either way, a number of education researchers and Texas teachers said TAAS is degrading the quality of Texas education.
"We are concerned that the repetitive [TAAS] demonstrations, drills, worksheets and practice tests may lower [student] motivation, curiosity and cognitive growth," said a 1997 study of Texas schools in the Journal of School Leadership. "The most devastating effects" are on minority students, it said, adding, "Many teachers insist [TAAS] does not measure what their students need to learn."
Teachers said principals and commercial TAAS consultants hired by their districts urge them to address their teaching mostly to the students who barely failed TAAS last time. Many reading classes consist of going over dreary one-paragraph passages, followed by multiple-choice questions. Children are taught test-taking tricks, such as looking first at the answers, circling key words and then reading the passage to find those words.
Some teachers express dismay that school districts, to identify slow learners, set performance levels that children are pushed to meet even in kindergarten. Some Houston parents are receiving letters saying their kindergartners should attend summer school because they're behind in rhyming or alphabet skills.
Margaret Immel, a Rice University reading expert who trains Houston teachers, believes that setting such expectations ignores the unevenness in the progress of 5-year-olds. She fears that "teachers will start engaging in these isolated drills to get [kindergartners] on [grade] level. . . . In many classrooms, the joy and magic of reading is being replaced with drudgery."
Texas officials say their goal is maintaining pressure for learning.
"Does it matter to have educational standards?" Bush aide LaMontagne said. "Does it keep people's eye on the ball? Absolutely. This is what leadership is about. We're not here to make people happy."
Bush vows as president to expand on the Texas model by requiring all states to test students. Non-performing schools would lose federal funds, with the money going to parents to choose their own schools.
"We're not going to pay for schools that will not change," Bush said. "As president, I'm going to rescue children from failure."
Test scores in Texas are on the rise, especially among minorities.
Percentage of eighth-grade students passing all sections of the TAAS test
SOURCE: Texas Education Agency
A SPEEDY RISE
Texas Gov. George W. Bush points to rising test scores in his state, especially among minorities.
Percentage of students passing all sections of the TAAS test
SOURCE: Texas Education Agency
CAPTION: SAMPLE QUESTIONS (This graphic was not available)