New Testing Scandals and Novice TeachersJonna Perrillo
In El Paso, Texas, the nation’s latest and most tragic scandal around standardized testing is coming to light. From 2006 to 2010, high school sophomores predicted to perform poorly on the tenth-grade exam—the state’s barometer for school funding—were denied enrollment or dropped from school rosters. At Bowie High School, the sophomore class dropped by over 200 students, or 55%, in a year. At Austin High School, it dropped by 291 students, or 45%. Locally, the students have become known as “los desaparecidos,” the disappeared.
Testing scandals to date have raised questions about the pressures struggling schools face. Yet there is a related factor that allows corruption to flourish and that few people discuss: the near-constant partnering of the nation’s most vulnerable students with the nation’s most vulnerable teachers, its novice ones.
Across the nation, Hispanic students are approximately 50% more likely than white students to enter into classrooms led by teachers with three or fewer years of experience on the job. In El Paso, where 81% of the city’s 63,000 public school students are Hispanic, wealth and language fluency serve as important dividing lines between the privileged and underprivileged. At Bowie, 95% of students are low-income and 39% are limitedly proficient in English. 36% of Bowie teachers have taught for five years or less. At Austin, 77% of students are low-income and 23% are limitedly proficient. 39% of Austin teachers have taught for five years or less. At both schools, where students were easily disappeared, the percentage of novice teachers surpasses the city average. In contrast, at Silva Magnet High School, where 56% of students are low-income and only 1.3% are limitedly proficient, just 15% of teachers have taught for five years or less. Based on its students’ consistently high test performance, Silva is ranked by the state as “Exemplary.”
The disappearing of public school students has historical roots in Texas. As Linda McSpadden McNeil’s work documents, a similar scheme took place in Houston a decade ago, though with much reduced penalties doled to its executors.1 Today, former school El Paso school superintendent Lorenzo Garcia is serving three and a half years in federal prison. In a city in which the median high school teacher salary is approximately $45,000, Garcia earned $56,000 in testing-related bonuses over an annual salary that topped $280,000. And yet while Garcia’s arrest and additional anticipated arrests mark an important and necessary attempt at remediation, they do little to change the pervasive problems of school culture that allow top-down corruption to flourish.
As recent scandals in Atlanta and Chicago attest, all cases of testing fraud, whatever form they take, depend on widescale participation. The disappearance of so many El Paso youth could not have taken place without a range of accomplices, including other district officials and school administrators and counselors. Like Garcia, some of these accomplices profited financially from improved testing performance. Teachers played little role in school enrollments, but they were essential to a parallel scheme to promote students out of the tenth grade through “minimesters” designed to cover a semester’s worth of work, sometimes in just a few hours. Teachers from Bowie, whose principal was recruited to the district by Garcia, offered model lessons to other district teachers in the “Bowie method.”
School statistics tell us that across the nation students who are best equipped to learn effectively and test well have many advantages, including more professionally and politically empowered teachers. In El Paso, other high schools were pressured to conform to the Bowie method. Whether or not they did depended on principals’ ethics and ability to persevere against a superintendent who ruled by threat and a state education agency that did nothing to respond. But corrupt administrators depend on teacher support, willing or coerced. And, simply put, novice teachers are easier to coerce.
New teachers lack tenure and, in many cases, the political know-how to respond to situations in which their own superiors are at fault. The whistleblower in El Paso was a 16-year counselor at Bowie, Patricia Scott. After she raised questions about 77 student transcripts, Scott was harassed and evaluated poorly until she transferred to another school. A newer teacher may simply have been terminated. In addition, many novice teachers were raised and trained in the era of high-stakes testing. We might hope they could identify that a one-week minimester focused on particular skills cannot substitute for months of contextualized study. In fact, many may not, given that in so many urban school districts, teaching to the test—divorced from any intellectual context—has become a longstanding routine.
To be sure, all teachers can feel pressured to cheat youth by one form or another in districts and schools where mandates to do so come from the top. In Atlanta, for example, teacher experience appears to have been of little consequence. According to statistics from the Civil Rights Data Collection, the percentage of novice teachers at the three top schools of the 44 flagged for testing corruption matched or fell below the city average. In some of these schools, veteran teachers orchestrated and enabled fraudulent test-administration and assessment procedures with little apparent reservation. Other experienced teachers testified that they felt victim to a culture of intimidation and threats, even with tenure.
Yet it still stands to reason that in schools with disproportionate numbers of novice teachers, school governance is all the more likely to be concentrated in the hands of a few and faculty are all the more vulnerable to pressure and intimidation. And as a result, political officials must address problems of funding and school culture that enable and reward fraud, including school staffing. Rather than finance performance bonuses, state and federal funds should support the improvements that would make working at high-poverty schools a more compelling and productive experience for students and teachers: smaller classes, more support staff and programs, and greater teacher responsibility in school governance. Across completely different districts and contexts, these are general improvements that inarguably make schools more rewarding places to work.
As scholars and teachers, we must better prepare the teachers we train to anticipate and respond to the pressures that all teachers of high-poverty students face, with or without corruption. Often times and for good reason, we treat this aspect of professionalism as something prospective teachers will learn on the job. Frequently, they don’t. Even if disappearing children is not the norm—and it may be happening more than we know—the larger political and ethical failings that the El Paso schools illustrate have become too common.
We must argue for these improvements in policy and consider how to best bring them about in the course of teacher preparation. Without them, poor schools will remain institutions where students and teachers alike are too easily made invisible.
1. Linda McSpadden McNeil (2005). “Faking Equity: High Stakes Testing and the Education of Latino Youth,” Pp. 96-99 in A. Valenzuela (ed.), Leaving Children Behind: How ‘Texas-Style’ Accountability Fails Latino Youth. Albany: State University of New York Press.