Cheating, Texas Style
Don't rig the tests, rig the students. That's the underlying philosophy of the recent cheating scandal in El Paso, Texas. Once again, it's a case of unrealistic expectations triggering a survival of the corrupt, and the results of that corruption are students denied an appropriate education and a public denied accurate information about its schools.
Unlike the cheating allegations in D.C., Atlanta, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, this isn't a case of teachers or administrators changing test answers. The El Paso case is, for lack of a better word, more elegant, and it has a long history in Texas that predates No Child Left Behind.
The core of the El Paso cheating was inappropriate reclassification of students. Are you of high school age and new to the country? Welcome to ninth grade, regardless of whether your transcripts say you should be placed higher. Are you in tenth grade and unlikely to do well on the state test? Welcome to eleventh grade! We'll just skip that whole testing inconvenience.
El Paso's case rings with echoes from Houston's “zero dropout” scandal about a decade ago. In those days, the educational “accountability” movement in Texas got a big boost from then-Governor George W. Bush. Principals and superintendents were told to lower dropout rates or lose their jobs, and when it came time for President Bush to sell No Child Left Behind to the rest of the country, he pointed to the “Texas Miracle.” While dropout rates in the rest of the country ran 20-40%, schools in troubled Houston had dropout rates of 0% or at least low single digits! Amazing!
Also, false. Faced with impossible pressure, most of the honest administrators left or got fired, leaving only the corrupt (or the newly corrupted). Students were reclassified, documents rigged, and the numbers magically got better. El Paso's just the newest iteration of the trend.
This kind of cheating isn't limited to Texas, of course. Schools and districts across the country – even in Minnesota – face similarly unrealistic expectations and have the same tools available. With the perverse “evolutionary pressure” that favors corruption over honesty, no amount of tongue-clucking or moralizing can curtail this kind of behavior. Yes, we need to enforce the rules. We also need a better set of expectations and measurements.