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Texas Test Two-Step

Bush Touts His State's Higher Test Scores On Campaign Trail

On the Campaign 2000 trail, GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush often cites how minority test scores in the Lone Star State have improved during his watch as Texas governor. But as 60 Minutes Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, those numbers could be costing kids and teachers something more intangible - and not just in Texas.

All over Texas, principals and teachers are acting less like educators, and more like cheerleaders, when it comes to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, better known as the TAAS.

The pressure starts when kids are just eight years old. For example, third graders at Roosevelt Elementary in Houston are constantly reminded with TAAS hats and TAAS signs, and TAAS practice tests - even a daily song about how much sleep they're losing over TAAS.

"People understand the bottom line. And the bottom line is test scores," said Charlotte Parker, Roosevelt's principal.

TAAS "is hovering over everything because that's how we're being measured," Parker explained. "The public will see in the paper on Sunday morning: 'Roosevelt - acceptable, recognized, exemplary.' What do I want it to say?"

Clearly, Parker would like it to say "exemplary," the top rating - and the school has had that rating for four years running. Its students, mostly Hispanic and black and mostly from poor homes, have seen their scores on the TAAS go up and up and up.

So is the school is part of the "Texas miracle?" Parker thinks so.

"We're showing that we can do it in spite of the barriers, in spite of the language differences, the low economic level," she said. "Our students are doing a tremendous job."

And that's true for minority and poor students all over Texas. More than twice as many black kids, for example, passed this year's test than did in 1994. Texas breaks all scores down by race and income. Every school is publicly rated based on the test scores of its lowest performing group.

Here's how the test demands results from students, teachers, and their schools. Say that only 40 percent of the Hispanic kids in a school pass. No matter how anyone else does, the entire school will be listed as "low-performing." So the school has to put resources - specific resources into those minority kids in that school.

In Texas, everything rides on the test: whether students go to the next grade or graduate, whether teachers keep their jobs, whether administrators get bonuses of up to $25,000.

And Gov. George W. Bush has touted the test on the Campaign 2000 trail.

"In 1994, there were 67 schools in Texas that were rated 'exemplary' according to our own tests," the GOP presidential nominee has said on the stump. "This year there are 1,120. We're proud of that number."

But Linda McNeil, an education Professor at Rice University, challenges Governor Bush's boasts of success.

"We have kids, including at the high school level who can pass the test," she said. "But then their teachers and principals call and say, 'Our kids can't read. They can't read an English lesson; they can't read their science books.'"

McNeil argues that students in Texas learn little more than how to take the test. She tells of one minority high school in Houston which has no library, but spent nearly $20,000 on test prep software and practice materials.

Practice for the test, critics say, is crowding out real teaching. Kids in Texas don't just learn to read; they learn reading strategy for the test - numbering paragraphs and highlighting key words. And when they use computers, it's likely to be for TAAS drills.

But what some see as endless "test prep," advocates see as simply effective methods of teaching the three "R's" Houston school superintendent Rod Paige, a Bush supporter, points to the fact that Texas students aren't just doing better on the TAAS, but on some national tests as well.

"The gains are real," said Paige. "They're very real gains. And they're the product of very hard work from teachers and principals and schools and parents and all of us."

But isn't there a difference between measuring what a kid has learned in school and spending all those hours teaching the kid how to take the test?

"I don't think that you can do well on the test by simply knowing how to take the test. You must know the content," Paige replied.

An awful lot of teachers beg to differ. In a recent survey, only 27-percent of Texas teachers said they believe that rising scores on the TAAS actually reflect real gains in learning.

Three teachers in the Houston area - Monica Hodges, Nanette Bishop, and Sherrie Matula - are among those educators who are concerned.

"We do a wonderful product as far as the TAAS test and the format are concerned," said Matula. "But branch off into anything else, or tell them they must write in a complete sentence the answer to a question on literature, and they look at you like you're a blank.

"I could stack on the floor and go up about this high with the materials in my classroom alone that has been supplied as far as TAAS," she added.

All three said they know of teachers who have been specifically told not to teach social studies or science - subjects not on TAAS - so their students focus on the test.

"I'm a professional teacher. I've gone to school to be a professional teacher," said Bishop. "I choose to be in the classroom. And I know what I need to do for my kids and people keep taking that away from me."

Superintendent Paige offered another reason why some teachers are frustrated with the test.

"What I understand is there is a culture shift taking place in public education," he said. "And now, the public is asking teachers to be accountable. Nobody likes to be tested."

And the demands of that testing, noted Paige, apply to he teachers.

"I think that may be the basis of this whole argument," he said. "It's work. It's hard work. And most teachers would like to be free to ad-lib, and play like they want to."

But McNeil insisted that simply isn't the case.

"The myth is that the weakest teachers are now being forced to do more," she said. "But in school after school after school, what are we seeing? It is the brightest teachers, best prepared in their subject, who are being asked to do less. The weakest teachers now have a very comfortable script they can hide behind."

But the TAAS wouldn't exist if kids had been learning to read before; an awful lot weren't. Parents and politicians demanded that teachers and schools fix that. And they demanded proof.

"We have to demonstrate some level of competency and some level of efficiency and some level of effectiveness," said Parker. "And testing is how we do it."

Testing is how they do it everywhere these days. And while there's been very little protest in Texas, other states are in an uproar. In Massachusetts, there have been boycotts and rallies and demonstrations against the state test - called the MCAS.

Mary Ginley, the 1998 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, is one of the most outspoken critics of the MCAS.

"At the very least, we owe kids a happy childhood, and they're not getting it anymore in school," said Ginley, who teaches second grade.

So why does one test make a kid feel so much worse about himself than flunking a course in Algebra or whatever?

"Well, one thing is the hype on this one test. It's too big," Ginley explained. "Every day, they're worried about remembering all this stuff for the test. And yes, we do get report cards, yes. And some people get better report cards than others and we live through it … It's different than when we were in school. I know that I heard from a mother that she heard the word MCAS every single day in September and October from her daughter."

Kids really do worry. Back in Texas, one boy was interviewed by a local reporter on the day before the test.

"When you pass grades, it gets harder and harder, and …" said the boy, who then broke into tears.

"Oh my goodness! Is it the interview that's making you nervous?" the reporter asked the boy.

When the boy answered "no," the reporter replied, "No, it's the TAAS that's making you nervous. I'm sorry."

The pressure isn't just getting to students. In Texas and around the country, teachers and administrators have been caught cheating on tests. The school district in Austin, Texas, was indicted for cheating. School districts have been caught red-handed in changing the answers and giving kids more time.

In Houston, teacher Sherrie Matula said that meant monitors were hired - for the teachers.

"We were so afraid of that in our building that we got together four years ago an asked the principal to hire monitors to come in and watch us while we were doing the test," she said.

And Professor McNeil points to another, more subtle way of manipulating test results. She said that some students seen as likely to hurt their school's rating don't even get to take the TAAS, particularly the tenth grade test they must pass to graduate from high school.

"Principals are pressured to hold their ninth graders back and not promote them if they thin they're not going to pass the tenth grade exit test," she said.

And kids who stay back are "more likely to drop out," McNeil added. "One fourth of the African-American and Latino students in our state repeat ninth grade."

That's one of the highest minority repeat rates in the country. And even the Texas students who do pass the TAAS and graduate aren't necessarily prepared for the next step.

"The University of Texas system regents came out earlier this year with the statement that we have fewer Texas high school graduates going on to the four-year colleges and universities in the state. And one-third of those who go need serious remediation," said McNeil.

So as TAAS scores are going up, the professor argues that students' ability to handle college is going down. Teacher Nanette Hansen agreed.

"If you only have kids that are coming out prepared to take a certain kind of test, to do a certain kind of writing, to do a certain kind of reading, they're not going to be prepared for college, where you're required to write in a variety of formats read a variety of literature. You won't be prepared," said Hansen.

And Monica Hodges shares that worry, not just for the students in her classroom, but for her own daughter Megan.

"We just started watching all these things come home that were TAAS preparation, TAAS preparation, TAAS preparation," explained Hodges, who asked her daughter whether she was reading novels, writing stories, or doing hands-on science in the classroom.

Megan's answer to her mother's question was "no," because it was all about TAAS, instead.

"And so we decided," said Hodges, "that they can waste her time at school, and they can waste our tax dollars, but they cannot have her scores for 'exemplary.' So we kept her home" - and Megan didn't take the test.

Parents can protest and teachers can complain, but so long as the public and the politicians demand accountability, or at least what passes for it, testing is here to stay.