Judge’s Ruling Effectively Acquits High-Stakes Test
To the disadvantage of poor and minority students in Texas
WASHINGTON — Even though Black and Latino students are at increased risk of failing Texas’ high-school graduation test, a federal judge ruled last month that the test does not violate federal law.The plaintiffs in GI Forum v. Texas Education Agency alleged that the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills discriminates against minority students. But U.S. District Court Judge Edward C. Prado of San Antonio ruled that the “use of the TAAS examination does not have an impermissible adverse impact on Texas’ minority students and does not violate their right to the due process of law.”Meanwhile, two new studies released by The Harvard University Civil Rights Project show poor and minority children are at increased risk of failing high stakes tests like the one in Texas. What is noteworthy about the two Harvard studies is they document the disparate effects of high-stakes testing in several states. High-stakes testing includes any test where there are serious consequences for not passing, ranging from not being promoted to a higher grade to not receiving a high school diploma. In Texas, for example, students who do not pass the TAAS are not eligible to receive a high school diploma. Texas Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson admits that his state still has an achievement gap between its minority and White students, but says, “We will continue to work to eliminate that gap.”One of the Harvard studies, done by Drs. Linda McNeil of Rice University and Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas-Austin, examined the controversial Texas exam. It found that, “Rather than raising the quality of education to its higher levels…, there is increasing evidence that the TAAS testing system harms children’s learning in a variety of intersecting, cross-cutting ways.” The test scores, which are published in newspapers by school and disaggregated by race and ethnicity, “loom so largely that they overshadow discussion on what would be other more telling indicators of quality of education such as the degree of segregation, the level of poverty, or the number of students taking the SAT and going to college,” the study says. The other study, conducted by Drs. Gary Natriello of Teachers College at Columbia University and Aaron M. Pallas of Michigan State University, examined the use of high-stakes testing in several states, including Texas, Minnesota and New York. It says that “we should be concerned about their potential to further exacerbate already substantial inequities in schooling outcomes.” In a phone interview, Natriello said, “I’m opposed to only holding kids accountable and not holding anyone else accountable. Right now, only kids — and particularly poor and minority kids — are bearing the burden.”He offers New York as an example, where all students now have to pass the Regents exams in order to receive a high school diploma. The science test, he said, is “a very good test that tests laboratory skills.” However, Natriello added, not all high schools have laboratories in which students would be able to learn those skills.“The appropriate work has not been done to make sure kids have had the opportunity to meet the standards of the test,” he says.Rice University’s McNeil agreed. Under the Texas system, report cards on the scores of each school are published with a star rating. But, McNeil says, “There is never an asterisk that says, this school doesn’t have a library.”One of the problems McNeil has noted is that many schools — particularly those serving poor and minority children — devote many hours of instruction to TAAS test preparation rather than real instruction. She maintains that test prep is at a very low level of content, such as practicing reading a paragraph and answering multiple-choice questions. “A lot of minority kids are spending many months of the year doing things they are supposed to forget,” McNeil says.Many schools are hiring test preparation consultants to conduct schoolwide pep rallies and teacher workshops. “A lot of what appears to be an educational expenditure is money that is not going to schools but to test preparers and test vendors, and test prep consultants who get $1,000 a day,” she says.In presenting the studies, Dr. Gary Orfield, co-director of The Harvard Civil Rights Project, said, “What we’re finding out from Texas is truly frightening: when high-stakes tests drive education reform, they can reduce the curriculum in high poverty schools to little more than test preparation. Assessment is, of course, a vital part of education, but the stakes attached to these tests are way out of balance when such a limited and imperfect measure of achievement counts for more than all the assessments of all the students’ teachers.” The Harvard Civil Rights Project is a think tank focused on racial and social issue research in collaboration with civil rights advocacy groups and scholars from universities around the country. The studies it has commissioned can be found on the Web at <www.law.harvard.edu/civilrights>.
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