High Stakes Testing Ground Zero…And the Revolution that Followed

Norma de la Rosa didn’t sleep the night before because she was afraid.  Norma is the president of the El Paso Teachers Association and she’s not afraid of much.  Not politicians or reporters or giving speeches before hundreds of people, but she was about to do something no one in El Paso had done before.  She had invited the entire community to come to what is being called their Ground Zero.  She was afraid that no one would come.

Ground Zero is what we call the pit left after an explosion.  After an attack.  Bowie High School was Ground Zero for hundreds of students whose futures were attacked.  The students at Bowie are smart, energetic teenagers with as much right to a future as anyone else’s kids.  The school is located along the border.  You can throw a rock and hit Mexico.  There is a high poverty rate among families. High unemployment.  Many students are English Language Learners.  These boys and girls need an excellent education to meet the challenges that are part of their lives.


One of those challenges, however, was inflicted by a school district with policies that embraced the insane “reforms” that push for more and more high stakes testing, even as more and more evidence piles up showing how truly harmful high-stakes testing is.  But some keep doing it.  In fact, they up the ante.  Which is why I call it insane.  We know better.

But too many policy makers continue to bow to high-profile “reformers” who advise them that we should run our schools like a factory where assembly line workers get bonuses for hitting their number.  Instead of looking at research on the failures of these “Factory School Reforms” and the colossal waste of time and money devoted to commercial standardized tests, some have doubled-down on hooking high-stakes prizes and punishments to tests that was never designed to warrant those prizes and punishments.

Years ago, I started giving speeches about the inevitable fallout of the misuse of test data.  Thousands and thousands of us warned that standardized tests did not measure much, let alone whether a 2nd grader should get to go to 3rd grade or a teacher should be labeled “good” or “bad”.  We warned that pay-by-tests-scores was corruption waiting to happen because given enough pressure or a sufficiently greedy person, it was relatively easy to manipulate test data and you would end up rewarding bad people who cheated and punishing decent educators who did not sacrifice their professional ethics and neglect their duty to educate the whole child.

Then came El Paso.  A district administrator over Bowie High School was told if he got test scores up, there would be a big bonus in it for him.  Almost overnight, he did it.  He pocketed almost $60,000 doing it.  He was patted on the back and asked to give presentations about how he did it.  The story he told had nothing to do with what he actually did.  But the parents knew.

For three years, they talked about the students who Disappeared just before test time: Los desaparecidos.  Before test time, Dr. Lorenzo García would systematically, and with accomplices, put together a list of kids he knew would have a hard time passing the test.  He used that list to decide which students to push out.  For some, they were told they should drop out and get a GED.  Or drop out so they could begin helping their families by working.

Some were frightened into dropping out with threats that their families would be investigated for immigration violations.  They were bullied.  Humiliated.  Cheated until Dr. García removed his quota of struggling students from the testing pool.  The average score for a school can go up dramatically if you eliminate certain students who struggle on tests in English.

None of this is new, but in El Paso, it was better documented than crimes like this that were alleged in Houston (back then patted on the back for the Houston “Miracle”).  Dr. García has the distinction for being the first school official to go to jail for this type of corruption, but it took too long to catch. The parents in the community knew what was happening, but they were not organized to have their voices heard.  The El Paso Teachers Association was sounding alarms about the undue pressure for ever-higher test scores, but they were told they were just against “accountability”.

So Norma de la Rosa couldn’t sleep.  The corruption that all of us had predicted had happened with a vengeance, and Norma was not going to sleep until she found a way make sure it never happened again.  She and her leaders in El Paso, including the teachers, support staff, student teacher members and professors at University of Texas El Paso – all members of the El Paso Teachers Association, the Texas State Teachers Association and the National Education Association – knew that to protect the whole child from this testing corruption, it would take the whole community.  They got to work, and organized the beginning of the revolution.

Parents were invited.  The business community.  The press.  Administrators.  Advocates for human and civil rights.  Politicians.  Surrounding education associations in the suburbs.  They wanted the community to come together to understood what had happened and to make plans to support each other so that they would stand together and fight for their students.  The El Paso educators called the event “Social Justice in Public Education.”  Norma invited me, as vice president of the NEA, and the president of the Texas State Teacher Association, Rita Haecker, to speak about how educators everywhere were united in the fight against the disrespectful treatment of students and families who needed us the most.

She knew we’d show up.  She didn’t sleep the night before the event wondering if anyone else would come.  Rita and I got to the large Bowie High School cafeteria, volunteers were at a registration table handing information out.  Student Teachers from UTEP were serving mole and tacos and donuts.  Spanish language translators were at a table where people could check out headphones to hear the speakers in Spanish.  All the tables, set up to accommodate 400 people, were empty.  Norma looked nervous, even though she had an hour before the program began.

Fifty-five minutes later, every table was filled.  People were starting to stand at the back of the room.  There were groups of grandparents and young parents and even students.  There were teachers and custodians and lunch ladies.  There were administrators and legislators and researchers and activists and reporters.   They showed up to do something for the kids who needed them.  They showed up to ask questions, and they showed up to get answers, but mostly, they showed up to start a revolution to put the needs of children before the needs of so-called reformers who refuse to admit that they have been tragically wrong.  They showed up to say ¡basta ya!  Enough is enough.

El Paso connected social justice to a public school last week.  They began the work of healing the past and making plans for the future.  That work will live.  It will change, as it needs to change.  But the partnerships, the understanding, the determination will continue.  We will end this corrupting, insanity of high-stakes standardized tests.  El Paso is not alone.  May we all lose sleep until we act.

Sweet dreams, Norma.

4 Responses to “High Stakes Testing Ground Zero…And the Revolution that Followed”

  1. Fred Klonsky

    Good piece. But why hasn’t the NEA, of which I am a career and retired member, voiced support for the action of its members at Garfield High School in Seattle for their stand against the use and misuse of MAP testing?
    -Fred Klonsky
    Illinois Education Association – Retired

  2. Lily

    Hi Fred,

    Here is some of what NEA´s has said regarding Garfield High School.


    Thanks for your comment!

    • Fred Klonsky

      Thank you Lily.
      I did read President Van Roekel’s fine letter of support. It was released the day after I posted my comment.
      It is one thing to be critical of the misuse of standardized and high stakes testing. It is quite another to do what the NEA members at Seattle’s Garfield High School have done in refusing to administer the MAP test.
      Thank you for supporting them.
      -Fred Klonsky
      IEA NEA Retired

  3. Kris

    Diane Ravitch had a great interview with Charlie Rose in may of 2012, its interesting that conservatives who knock public education, fail to mention that public education is having its success in many countries including singapore and others.

    In addition the heritage foundation and other pro-business capitalist organizations tout singapore’s low-tax,low-regulation economy, but do they tout its effective public school system?, no, of course I’m not saying we should adopt their model, only that its hypocrisy to say public education doesn’t work and that government shouldn’t really be involved in education.


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