Book Review: Messing With Texas

Leaving Children Behind kicks up dust in the lone star state

By Wayne Au

Leaving Children Behind:  
How “Texas-style” Accountability Fails Latino Youth
Edited by Angela Valenzuela 
State University of New York Press, 2005  
313 pp. $73.50

“Everything is bigger in Texas,” the saying goes.

Apparently it’s true. Check out their Texas-sized dropout rates.

In 2001 The Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio estimated a 40 percent high school dropout rate, which in real numbers, translates into Texas high schools “losing” better than 90,000 students per year. A disproportionate number of these students are black and Latino.

The contributors to the book Leaving Children Behind are aware of monstrous injustices like this one and seek to understand how they can be taking place in public schools in Texas. And they’re naming the culprit: the state’s high-stakes, corporate model of accountability.

Why mess with Texas? Texas was the laboratory for No Child Left Behind legislation. George W. Bush was the former governor of the Lone Star State, and former Department of Education Secretary Rod Paige was the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District—home of the “Houston Miracle” where principals made their dropouts mysteriously disappear in order to boost their schools’ ratings and their own paychecks.

Leaving Children Behind is a collection of mostly academic articles that take a detailed look at the impact Texas’ accountability system is having on its Latino population. Rather than just relying on political arguments or broad critiques of Texas’ education policy, the contributors to Leaving Children Behind make use of thorough educational research to uncover just how bad things are for Latino students.

The most compelling chapter of Leaving Children Behind is “Faking Equity: High Stakes Testing and the Education of Latino Youth” by Linda McNeil. She provides an accessibly written summary of the negative impact the Texas system is having on Latino students. What is happening is the state is massaging statistics to make it seem as though education is improving instead of getting worse.

For instance, McNeil explains how Texas is supposedly closing the race-based achievement gap. Test score proficiency for “Hispanic” students taking the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) has officially increased from 39 percent to 79 percent over the last eight years. By most measures, a test score gain of 40 percentage points over eight years would seem to say that Texas’ system of high-stakes accountability, which includes bonuses for teachers and principals whose students show gains, is tantamount to success. The state of Texas has touted this remarkable improvement as proof of its educational effectiveness. But as McNeil points out, this increased achievement is fake for at least three reasons. First, the state of Texas counts the scores of “Limited English Proficient” students completely separately from those it categorizes as “Hispanic” for its TAAS scores. This allows the state to cut out the large number of Latinos who are not “English proficient” from the rest of the group, thus artificially inflating the achievement numbers of those they place in the “Hispanic” category.

Second, the state has been hiding its dropouts and essentially disappearing them from their rosters, with several districts officially reporting dropout rates at or below 3 percent. McNeil points out the pure ridiculousness of these official reports by observing that there are often two to four times as many ninth-grade homerooms as there are twelfth-grade homerooms. In terms of test scores, many of the lowest-scoring students aren’t even in the schools to take the tests.

Third, these “improved” scores don’t seem to correlate to increased scores on other tests. Magically, even though students in Texas have shown dramatic increases on the TAAS, their scores have consistently declined on national tests like the SAT I, the ACT, and the NAEP. McNeil appropriately compares this calculation of test scores to Enron, where slick and questionable accounting kept stock prices up while hiding the miserable failings of the company.

There are other notable chapters in Leaving Children Behind as well. Elaine Hampton’s “Standardized or Sterilized?” uses the Tamarisk, an invasive plant that chokes out its ecological competition, as a guiding metaphor to describe how high-stakes accountability is choking out authentic curricula and creating stronger feelings of alienation amongst students and teachers.

Belinda Bustos Flores and Ellen Riojas Clark’s chapter “The Centurion” explores how teacher testing is acting as a gatekeeper against the certification of Latino and bilingual teachers in Texas.

Finally, Valenzuela wraps up the collection with a riveting conclusion, in which she draws a detailed map of how politically conservative and neo-liberal economic forces in the state have come together to launch an all-out attack on public education.

Potential readers of Leaving Children Behind should be aware of a few issues. Like most edited collections, Leaving Children Behind suffers from a lack of stylistic consistency. Most chapters are academic prose, while a few, such as McNeil’s, are more accessibly written. Also the overriding tone of this collection reads as if it were written mainly as a college textbook and not for the layperson. This is not to say that the research included in Leaving Children Behind is not important. If we want to make cogent, “data-driven” arguments against high-stakes tests and the No Child Left Behind legislation, then we absolutely need research like this in our toolbox. It just would be nice if similar research were accessible to a wider public. Additionally, some of the chapters are so focused on the microcosm of the Texas state legislature that readers outside of Texas may get lost in the political minutiae surrounding various state senate bills.

Despite these minor shortcomings, Leaving Children Behind is an important book. It tells a frightening tale of increased dropout rates of blacks and Latinos; increased alienation of teachers, students, and administrators; further attacks on bilingual education; and the overall malaise and inequality associated with market-driven education reforms. As we uncomfortably ease ourselves into the cold reality of another term with President Bush at the helm, Leaving Children Behind will help us gauge our possible educational future. Unfortunately, if Texas is the barometer of U.S. education policy, then things are only going to get worse for the rest of us.

Wayne Au ( is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a Rethinking Schools editor.