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CNN PRESENTS: High Stakes, The Battle To Save Schools

Aired May 8, 2005 - 20:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: For decades, America's schools have failed millions of children.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That constitutes -- is rotten (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's produced the stagnation that we've had over the last three decades.

ANNOUNCER: President Bush has created a bold vision of change.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Every child in America will learn, and no child will be left behind.

ANNOUNCER: The centerpiece: high stakes testing, but are the stakes too high?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When I got my last report card, it said I am third rate (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I had kids bawling their eyes out, just crying because they have just had it with testing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's based on lies and myths and just falsifying data and cheating.

ROD PAIGE, FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: The naysayers will continue to be naysayings, but the work must continue, because the mission is too great.


MILES O'BRIEN, HOST: American schools are in the midst of one of the most ambitious and comprehensive educational reform plans in the last 100 years. Welcome to CNN PRESENTS. For Aaron Brown, I'm Miles O'Brien.

It's called No Child Left Behind. It is a Bush administration program aimed at dramatically improving the nation's worst schools. It is based on education reforms in Texas, enacted by then Governor Bush.

No Child was supposed to mean the end of so-called social promotions and the beginning of real accountability. One of the cornerstones, regular comprehensive testing. They were called high stakes tests. Failing them created serious consequences for students, teachers and schools.

In Texas, the test scores soared and drop out rates plunged. And the program was called the Texas miracle. Mr. Bush's approach became the model for tests that are now mandated in all 50 states.

But there was a dark side to the miracle. Around the country, many educators, students and parents are finding unforeseen and often devastating consequences of high stakes testing.


NARRATOR: Seventeen-year-old Shevonnda Harris is a single mom in Norfolk, Virginia. She's also a high school honors student.


I have a young 15-month-old. I have to get him dressed, get him fed and he keeps a smile on your face, keeps you laughing.

NARRATOR: Every morning, she drops off her son at daycare.

HARRIS: Most mornings, I don't eat breakfast, because I don't have time. I'm trying to make it to school on time.

NARRATOR: Her neighborhood is rough. There have been shootings outside her door, a body found in a neighbor's trash can.

HARRIS: I want a, you know, better life so I can move somewhere where he can walk down the street and play.

Lake Taylor is a place I really enjoy coming to school.

I love all my teachers. I wouldn't see myself at another school.

NARRATOR: Lake Taylor High is an inner city school that seems to shatter the stereotypes.

MILES BOND, GOVERNMENT TEACHER, LAKE TAYLOR HIGH SCHOOL: Students here at Lake Taylor seem to have pride in themselves and a pride in their school.

NARRATOR: But Lake Taylor wasn't always a success story. Six years ago, the school and the Norfolk district were in trouble. Seventy percent of the high school students taking algebra failed. More than 80 percent of the kids couldn't pass a basic test of American history. And Lake Taylor High was known as a dumping ground, a place where other schools sent their worst students.

NOAH ROGERS, PRINCIPAL, LAKE TAYLOR HIGH SCHOOL: Lake Taylor had been labeled as a school that was somewhat dysfunctional, in that students were not achieving. Their scores were down.

NARRATOR: The transformation began when the district started to use high stakes testing to ensure that all students were learning. They called them the Standards of Learning tests, or SOL. And they were adopted at schools across Virginia.

Attitudes changed and so did student achievement.

BOND: OK. In Texas, you have to take what's called the TAKS. In Florida, you have to take what's called the FCAT. And of course, in Virginia, we take the what?


BOND: S-O-L's, as you all know.

DENIS SCHNITZER, SUPERINTENDENT, NORFOLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS: We've had tremendous success if we looked at the data over the six years since the standards were first implemented.

NARRATOR: Pass rates in algebra went from seven percent to 67 percent. American history went from 15 percent to 78 percent. And chemistry went from 54 percent to 99 percent in only six years.

SCHNITZER: And the question is how did you do that? How did you show the tremendous success that you've shown? And we now have a belief system that every child can succeed.

NARRATOR: In Norfolk, they believe the high stakes tests have raised expectations and opened doors for students like Shavonnda.

JAY GREENE, SENIOR FELLOW, MANHATTAN INSTITUTE: And that door has been closed to minority students and closed to low income students for too long. So I think we've turned to high stakes testing and accountability as a way of bursting open that door.

BOND: You know, we have done a great job as far as doing what we need to do.

I was a tremendous skeptic at first, and I've been won over over the years because this sets a standard. So you know that in every classroom certain things are supposed to be taught. And I think if those things are taught correctly, the students don't have a big problem, you know, passing the tests.

NARRATOR: They bring the kids in after school, bus them in on Saturdays, all in an attempt to boost the test scores.

HARRIS: We prepare all year so when the SOL comes, it's like just knock it right out.

PAIGE: That's an example of what can happen all across the United States, when those kinds of efforts take place.

NARRATOR: The critics question what the tests are really measuring.

MICKEY VANDERWERKER, PARENTS FOR SOL REFORM: I think our kids are getting really good at answering multiple choice questions. Teachers each year got a little better and a little better at figuring out how to teach to the test. Does that truly mean that the child has learned that material?

NARRATOR: While SOL scores have shot up, performance in other tests, like the SATs, remain far below the national average.

VANDERWERKER: So in other words, the SOL pass rates are rising and everything else is flat or falling. When you put that information together, the shining example of Norfolk is -- is a very muddy picture.

SCHNITZER: There has been an emphasis on the standards of learning, and a lot of times when there's an emphasis in one area, something else seems to fail a little bit or suffer because of that.

NARRATOR: While the disconnect between the SOL scores and the SATs raises questions about Norfolk's success, Shavonnda Harris has no doubts. She plans to apply to a local community college.

When we return, the Houston Miracle.

ROBERT KIMBALL, FORMER ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: Everything was looking wonderful in Houston, but of course, it wasn't a miracle. It was really a myth.



AARON BROWN, HOST (voice-over): We now return to CNN PRESENTS: HIGH STAKES.

NARRATOR: To understand how high stakes testing is transforming Norfolk, Virginia, you have to go to Houston, Texas, where the testing movement began.

In 1996, the collapse of a high school cafeteria became a symbol of Houston's failing public school system. Test scores were abysmal, and half of all students dropped out.

BUSH: Our economy is the envy of the world. Unfortunately, our schools are not.

NARRATOR: As governor, George W. Bush was determined to improve student achievement and reduce dropout rates in schools across Texas. He implemented statewide reforms, including mandatory testing, and he said he would hold school officials accountable for rising test scores.

PAIGE: Last year, when we got our top scores...

NARRATOR: Bush found a kindred spirit in Houston superintendent Rod Paige.

PAIGE: We know how to make organizations work. The same thing is true for schools. The idea is to link performance and contribution and incentives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fifty-five thousand dollars.

NARRATOR: Paige's approach was to bring corporate models of success to Houston's failing schools. The centerpiece of his plan was to tie pay raises for teachers and principals to students' test scores.

KIMBALL: All of a sudden, testing became extremely important, and he very clearly told principals that if you wanted to keep your jobs, you need to keep the scores way high.

NARRATOR: Principals who could show rising test scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, could get bonuses of up to $5,000. For district superintendents, bonuses could rise to $20,000. Officials had a clear cut financial incentive to raise test scores.

GAYLE FALLON, PRESIDENT, HOUSTON FEDERATION OF TEACHERS: If you cost me my $20,000 bonus, you're out of here and I'll get a new principal. So there's tremendous pressure on them, and then they pass the pressure down.

NARRATOR: With the carrot came a stick. If test scores did not rise, and dropout rates fall, principals faced demotion or even dismissal.

PAIGE: And we'll get continuous improvement when...

CASHIN CLAY, FORMER PRINCIPAL, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: Well, if your job is on the line, somebody tells you if the children do well you'll receive all this glory, and if they don't, you may be out of there, people will do anything to keep their jobs.

PAIGE: I'm saying the skills that you have to have in order to get into this profession.

CLAY: That was part of Rod Paige's reign of terror.

KIMBALL: You all of a sudden saw many schools that had 40 to 45 percent pass rate on the TAKS go up to 90 percent the very next year.

NARRATOR: The fast rising test scores were hailed as the Houston Miracle. But the miracle was not what it seemed. Thousands of students were actually dropping out.

KIMBALL: One day I was informed that a report had been turned in to the district from my high school, and they -- our principle reported zero dropouts. Well, I knew that was impossible, because I'd seen over 400 students leave that year. And many of them told me they had dropped out. I saw many assistant principals tell students to quit school, to get out, go withdraw.

NARRATOR: Another strategy to make the statistics tell a good story, according to Kimball, was for officials to retain students in ninth grade so they wouldn't have to take the TAKS test in tenth grade.

In the city's poorest neighborhoods, the Houston miracle was nothing but a dream.

BERNARD PALMER, FORMER STUDENT, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: I felt like there were hours -- hours working in my neighborhood (ph). Most people that stay in the neighborhood, in the school, some of them only finished middle school.

When I was at Austin, I thought it was a good school, but it seemed like they tried to miss over you (ph).

NARRATOR: Bernard Palmer repeated the ninth grade three times. He said school officials didn't give him the proper classes to allow him to enter the tenth grade, which was when students take the TAKS test. Bernard was only one of many students caught up in the drive to show rising test scores.

PERLA ARREDONDO, FORMER STUDENT, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: Once I passed all my courses and everything, they -- you know, they gave me, when I came back, you know, after vacation. We came back. And they gave me the same classes. And I went to my counselor, and that's when I told her, you know, "You're giving me the same classes. And I already passed them."

She said, "Don't worry about it. I know what I'm doing. That's my job."

NARRATOR: After three years in ninth grade, Perla Arredondo was suddenly promoted to the eleventh grade, skipped over the tenth grade and the TAKS test. Perla and hundreds of others became so frustrated that they quit school, sometimes on the advice of school officials.

KIMBALL: You force these kids that might not do well on the test to quit school, then of course, that reduces the number of failures.

NARRATOR: In 2000, there were 1,160 ninth grade students at Austin High School, but the next year only 257 made it to the tenth grade. And what was happening at Austin High was happening at schools across the district.

The state of Texas defines dropout using a complicated formula that critics say vastly undercounts the true numbers. As a result, school districts across the state report that virtually no students are dropping out. Just last year, for example, Houston reported an astonishing 0.9 percent drop out rate.

ABE SAAVEDRA, SUPERINTENDENT, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: Do I believe that our drop out rate is closer to the 30, 40, 45 percent? Yes. We have a drop out problem in this district.

There's nothing I can do or the district can do in report it differently. The rules are provided by the state.

GREENE: They're lying in that they may very well be following a set of rules that are provided to them about how they calculate a graduate rate. Those rules are silly. Now, it's silly for them to slavishly obey these rules and not admit that the number that's produced is ridiculous. But -- but that's not necessarily lying. They are following a system that produces ridiculous graduation rates.

ANNOUNCER: The Texas Education Agency claims its drop out formula is valid. But a state audit found it was used to hide thousands of drop outs and downgraded the performance ratings of 15 Houston high schools.

PALMER: And it makes you feel real bad. You'll be hurt because you've failed so many times. It felt like the devil's work.

ANNOUNCER: Bernard had to go outside the Houston school district to get his diploma. As kids like him quietly disappeared, test scores climbed.

In 1999, Governor Bush decided to run for president.

BUSH: I have high expectations.

ANNOUNCER: A major theme of his campaign was education.

BUSH: The best way to have the best school system is to have programs emanate from the local level.

ANNOUNCER: Texas, and Houston in particular, became the showcase for his education proposals.

BUSH: Every parent wants their child to get the very best.

SEN. TED KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: We're very impressed, as I say, with what Dr. Paige has done.

ANNOUNCER: After Bush was elected president, Paige was confirmed by the Senate as secretary of education.

SEN. JIM JEFFORDS (I), VERMONT: His breadth of experience and record of success at all levels of education leaves his well equipped to assume the duties of secretary of education.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI (D), MARYLAND: I'm really impressed at what you did in Houston. I can't get over the way those test scores rose.

PAIGE: There was substantial, legitimate, authentic growth on the part of students at the Houston Independent School District. And many, many students have had their lives' chances improved because of their existence there.

NARRATOR: In 2002, Houston won a national prize for the most improved urban school district. But a Department of Education study found Houston's students ranked below the national average. Their test scores were average compared to other urban districts.

Rod Paige believes Houston is a success story.

PAIGE: And the naysayers will continue to be naysayers. So be it. They've always been there. They will continue to be there, but the work must continue, because the mission is too great. KIMBALL: Well, Dr. Paige did what he needed to do. He needed to, you know, create a miracle in Houston. The real story is you're cheating the kids and you're -- you're not really out for the children. And that's what's really sad about this whole No Child Left Behind movement. It's not focused toward helping kids.

PAIGE: Thank you -- thank you again for this honor.

KIMBALL: It's more focused on political ambitions.

NARRATOR: Coming up next, new allegations of fraud are rocking the Houston school system.

RICARD ROYAL, STUDENT, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: She would, like, walk around the room, and you'd see that she would be helping kids and telling them that the answer's wrong. You need to do it over.




BROWN (voice-over): We now return to CNN PRESENTS: HIGH STAKES.

NARRATOR: In 2003, another scandal hit the Houston School District. This time, there were allegations of cheating.

DONNA GARNER, ELEMENTARY TEACHER, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: I was approached by the principal and informed that I didn't know how to give tests the Wesley way. And then I was informed on how to give the tests the Wesley way and that the expectation was that I would give the test the Wesley way, which is cheating.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, class. We're going to go ahead and begin. Open your test booklets.

JULIANN JARAMILLO, MIDDLE SCHOOL TEACHER, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: I handed out the TAKS tests. I read the instructions out of the administrator's manual. I said, "OK, get busy." Kids were looking at me with blank stares. I said, "What are you waiting on?"

And about a third of my students said, "The answers."

I know that the teachers are cheating, because kids have told me that's how it was done with their particular teacher.

ROYAL: She would, like, walk around the room and you'd see that she would be helping kids and telling them that their answer's wrong. You need to do it over.

GARNER: I was to stop behind him until they placed their finger on the right answer, and then I was to continue walking.

ROYAL: They might come behind us and, like, peek over our shoulder and tell us if the answer's wrong or right.

KASANDRA BENAVIDES, STUDENT, HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: I heard her talking to students, like, next to me, saying, "Well, which one do you think is right? Which one do you think is wrong?" And helping them eliminate.

GARNER: It's disturbing to me that we're not only taking away their education, but we're instilling in small, young children, 9, 10 years old, that whatever works for you is OK.

But it's not only the teachers' fault. This isn't coming from a lower level. This is coming from way up in the district.

NARRATOR: The principal of Wesley Elementary declined to speak with CNN. Accusations of fraud first surfaced in 2003, when teachers began reporting incidents of cheating to the school board and to a Houston teachers union.

While an investigation was started by the school district, it quickly stalled.

SAAVEDRA: Yes, I'm not sure what happened, you know. We have -- I've reviewed the file and it seems that a year or so back, things kind of stopped as far as that -- I don't know why they didn't go any further.

NARRATOR: It wasn't until January of 2005 that current Houston school superintendent Abe Saavedra launched a new investigation, examining allegations of cheating at 23 Houston schools.

SAAVEDRA: I think that testing and assessment is important. The fact is that in this school district, as various in the human race, there are dishonest people. All right? And we don't throw out programs because there's a few people that may have abused the situation.

NARRATOR: The problem is not unique to Houston. Forty-four other schools in Texas are under investigation for suspicious rises in test scores. And within the past year, seven states have launched investigations, suspended staff or thrown out tainted scores.


O'BRIEN: In the past few days, the Houston Independent School District wrapped up its investigation. It found incidents of cheating at four schools. At another seven schools, students claimed their teachers helped them on tests, but the investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence of cheating. Six teachers will be fired. Two other teachers have already been pink slipped. Two principals and an assistant principal will be demoted.

And at Wesley Elementary, where Donna Garner worked, an independent council's investigation found no conclusive proof of cheating. But Garner stands by her charges.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As you get your test, you can start.

O'BRIEN: Coming up on CNN PRESENTS, thousands of third graders in Florida fail the test.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All the effort me and Malcolm put through in getting him the A's and the B's in school, that they really don't amount to anything.




BROWN (voice-over): We now return to CNN PRESENTS: HIGH STAKES.

MELVIN LOVE JR., STUDENT, BLANTON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: I have to get up at 6 a.m. and go to the bus stop at 7:15. It's on the west side.

NARRATOR: Every morning, Melvin Love Jr. travels to school from the cramped apartment where he lives with his mother and three siblings.

Like every third grader in the state, Melvin must pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, to be promoted to the fourth grade.

LOVE: There is a lot of test taking in school. We take tests every weekend, and I don't like it.

NARRATOR: What Melvin really doesn't like are the consequences of his test scores.

LOVE: When I got my last report card, it said on the thing that I am retained in third grade.

NARRATOR: Most third graders are 8 or 9 years old. But Melvin is 11. That's because he has been held back three times.

FELISHA ALEXANDER, MELVIN'S MOTHER: Missed it by one or two points. All the effort me and Melvin put through of getting him the A's and the B's in school, that it really don't amount to anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tell me the lifespan of a starfish. Average lifespan. Melvin.

LOVE: Seven.

MATT LANE, MELVIN'S TEACHER, BLANTON ELEMENTARY: Melvin is a student who I think could have handled fourth grade. He is at the top of our class. If the teacher would have had a say, he would have been in fourth grade, and he would -- he would be just fine in fourth grade. But now, he becomes another statistic. NARRATOR: Melvin is just one of the 45,000 third graders across the state of Florida who failed the FCAT last year. At Melvin's school, Blanton Elementary, 41 percent of the third grade class flunked.

CLAYTON WILCOX, SUPERINTENDENT, PINELLAS COUNTY SCHOOLS: You know, one of my greatest fears as a superintendent is that, given high stakes testing, given accountability, given the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), given the mandatory retention movement that's starting across this country as a result of not being successful, we are creating problems of an unanticipated consequence.

LANE: We now are going to do silent reading at your seat.

LOVE: I just feel sad and that, because the people, they're making fun of it. Because you tried your best, but you didn't -- you didn't pass. That's why they're picking on you.

ANGELA VALENZUELA, PROFESSOR OF EDUCATION, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN: If you think about retaining a child in a grade, it's a social death. They don't move forward. If a child is retained once in grade, there's a 50 percent chance that they will be drop outs. Twice, it's a virtual certainty, up to 90 percent.

This, then, becomes a pathway to the criminal justice system. Not that all of them end up there, but rather, that in the criminal justice system about 90 percent or more of them are drop outs from school.

NARRATOR: But promoting children who fail is worse, according to Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute.

GREENE: What it actually produces positive psychological development is actually learning the skills that you're supposed to learn. And so telling students, lying to students, essentially, by saying you're ready to go to the next grade, even if you're not, doesn't even help them emotionally.

JAN VANCE, THIRD GRADE TEACHER, BLANTON ELEMENTARY: When I tell you to open the booklet...

I don't think that anybody knows at this point what the impact, the long term impact, is going to be to each of those children. Because if you look at a child like Melvin, who's 11 years old now in the third grade, and he's looking at probably not graduating, if he graduates, until he's almost 20 years old.

NARRATOR: High stakes testing in Florida has caused a rash of third grade retentions in the Pinellas County schools and a growing number of students who are, like Melvin, third time retainees. Melvin is part of Blanton's third grade drop out prevention program.

COURTNEY MACK, THIRD GRADE TEACHER, BLANTON ELEMENTARY: To hear the words "drop out prevention" in third grade is -- it's scary. It's really scary. It's sad. WILCOX: I think historically, kids who -- who hadn't gained the competencies but perhaps had some social skills just moved right through the school systems. And they ultimately got out into the public work environment, and they really didn't have any marketable skills. They were caught with really being functionally illiterate.

VANCE: You have a booklet in front of you.

NARRATOR: In Pinellas County, they are trying to raise students' scores in the third grade FCAT by using frequent practice tests. And something called pacing calendars.

LANE: The pacing calendar, it's pretty much laid out for you what you need to teach what day, what week. And it's pretty rapid. If your kids don't get it, you don't have time. The next day you can't go over it again, because you're now to be teaching something else. It's frustrating, because you have students that don't understand it, but you have to move on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Today you're going to put your answers under test number two.

NARRATOR: We spoke to all the third grade teachers at Blanton Elementary. Every one of them expressed concern about the impact of the FCAT on their students.

MACK: Testing is out of control, blatant out of control. Third grades alone got tested 27 times in one month. One month. But yet, we have all these standards and now along with everything else, we have to fit in around these tests. And these kids are just tested out.

Last year by the time I actually got to the FCAT, aside from all these other tests that, you know, were along the way, I had kids bawling their eyes out, just crying, because first of all, they're nervous. They know how much pressure is weighed on these tests. And then second, I think, because they just had it. You know, they had just had it with testing.

OK, class. Today we're going to take our math practice FCAT test.

LOVE: I get nervous when I take the test. That is a lot of pressure on kids.

VANCE: Once the booklet is open, I won't be able to answer any questions about this test.

I think because there is such intense pressure to produce, produce, produce those scores on the FCAT that the other development that kids need has gone by the wayside.

NARRATOR: To make more time for classroom learning, Blanton has eliminated recess.

VANCE: I don't know if that's strictly due to the FCAT or just kind of an outgrowth over a number of years of dropping the things that supposedly weren't important.

DEBI TURNER, PRINCIPAL, BLANTON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: There's other things in life that are important, too. Does he know how to be a good citizen? Does he know how to respect, honor and be honest? Where's the test for that? Who cares -- does anybody care about that any more?

Are we forgetting the human factor in these children? These are human beings. They're not computers.

NARRATOR: Coming up next, 14,000 high school students in Florida failed the FCAT. Are standards being raised, or are children being left behind?

JENNIFER MEREDITH, SENIOR: If it weren't for the FCAT, I would be in college right now, getting certified to be an interpreter.




BROWN (voice-over): We now return to CNN PRESENTS: HIGH STAKES.

MEREDITH: It's fulfilling when I help a disabled person. I enjoy signing more than anything. Every opportunity I get, I get to sign, I'll do it. It's not an easy language, but it's easy for me, because I'm fascinated by it.

NARRATOR: Jennifer Meredith is one of 14,000 seniors who failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, last year. Since 2003, Florida has required all public high school students to pass the FCAT in order to graduate.

MEREDITH: I can't believe I didn't graduate. When I didn't pass the FCAT, I felt like bursting out into tears. And I felt like screaming, because I knew I did better than that.

Right now I'm working at a dead end job. I don't like to clean toilets. I don't like to clean up everybody else's messes. And if somebody throws up in the bathroom stall, I had to clean that up, which is really nasty. It really does suck.

BARBARA HELLMAN, JENNIFER'S GRANDMOTHER: She has real good grades. I was real surprised. Happy. You know, I figured as long as she got a C and was average, I'd be happy. But when she came home with A's and B's, you know, that was very good.

She had all these dreams, what she wanted to do. And ever since she started high school, sign language is what she wanted.

MEREDITH: If it weren't for the FCAT, I would be in college right now, getting certified to be an interpreter.

GREENE: Any system, any set of requirements are going to create some sad outcome for somebody. Imagine if we said, well, you know, it doesn't really matter whether students have acquired the skills that we expect of a high school student in Florida. We should give them diplomas anyway.

While you might help some students, you would hurt many more. And that kind of system is rotten, and it's produced the stagnation that we've had for the last three decades.

SARA SEWELL, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, VIRGINIA WESLEYAN COLLEGE: The problem is -- is that a lot of legislators, boards of education, so on and so forth, they believe that standardized testing is the panacea for all the problems in the education system. And that is absolutely not true.

WILCOX: Probably the ugly underbelly of high stakes testing is accountability. And I mean that sincerely. Ugly underside is. But there are some young people who have skills and talents that are not measured. We have to find a way to allow them to move through the system with dignity, or we're in danger of taking a generation of painters and artisans, folks with other talents, helping skills.

As a school system, if we can't work that out, we're going to be less than, not more than. And I don't think that anybody has really figured that out yet.

NARRATOR: Jennifer Meredith finally got her GED, almost a year after her classmates graduated. She still dreams of being an interpreter.

When we come back...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When we take our SOL, we will utilize these same strategies.

NARRATOR: ... teaching the test. Does it work?

SEWELL: It certainly does not seem to be translating into higher academic performance for freshmen walking into the college classroom.




BROWN (voice-over): We now return to CNN PRESENTS: HIGH STAKES.

NARRATOR: Milford School District is held up as a national model of high stakes testing. The district has worked hard to raise scores on their test, called the SOLs. And they begin at an early age.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, students. After reviewing verbs of the past tense, we're getting ready to do our SOL assessment. OK, you may begin.

NARRATOR: When children first enter school, they are introduced to material from the SOL tests. And it becomes part of nearly everything they do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When we take our SOL, we will utilize these same strategies.

ROSITA NELSON, FTA PRESIDENT, TIDEWATER PARK ELEMENTARY: It's very important to incorporate the SOLs into art, music, math science, reading, P.E.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Remember, the amount that you're doing is gradual. We're working our way up to our SOL level.

NELSON: It's very important to incorporate that on an every day basis. So it then prepares them for actually taking those SOL tests.

NARRATOR: Critics worry that teaching the test will become the new norm around the country as schools face increasing pressure to raise scores.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is one of your very important SOLs that will be covered on the test.

SEWELL: Well, we clearly know that teachers across the country are teaching to the test.

NARRATOR: Sarah Sewell teaches at Norfolk's Virginia Wesleyan College. Many of her students come from the Norfolk School District.

SEWELL: I would imagine they have 12 years of this, they are going to be masters at taking the test. The scores might be going up, but the question is, what aren't they learning?

NARRATOR: According to a Manhattan Institute study, the percentage of Virginia High School students who are college ready has not budged since the SOLs have been in place.

SEWELL: It certainly does not seem to be translating into higher academic performance for freshmen walking into the college classroom.

NARRATOR: And there's another wrinkle in Norfolk's success story. Like Houston, it has a hidden drop out problem. The district reported that Lake Taylor High School, one of its best, has had no drop outs the last two years.

SCHNITZER: The district as a whole has a one percent drop out rate. Which, again, is pretty incredible for an urban school district of our size.

NARRATOR: But Norfolk's drop out rate, like Houston, is calculated by an unusual formula that doesn't add up.

GREENE: Some official statistics have made the situation look better than it really is. And the way you can know this without having to be an expert is just look at how many scenes go into high school. And then look at how many come out with diplomas four years later. While that isn't a perfect way of -- of calculating graduation rates, it gives you a rough estimate of graduation rates really must be.

NARRATOR: Look at the number of freshman entering Lake Taylor High School, and compare that to the number of seniors four years later, and you get a drop out rate close to 50 percent, not zero.

SCHNITZER: We use a formula that's given to us by the state of Virginia. And we're really trying to be as honest and up front about reporting our drop outs and not hiding that as we can be and as the state allows us to be with the way that they ask us to calculate it.

GREENE: School systems will define a graduate or a drop out in a way that differs from how people regularly understand those terms. So they will call, for example, a child who goes to prison without having finished their diploma, they will call that child as -- they will identify that child as exempt from being identified as a drop out.

NARRATOR: High stakes tests are now a part of the landscape of America's public schools. While Texas, Florida and Virginia have pioneered the use of these tests, President Bush's No Child Left Behind calls for them to be used in every school across the nation by 2014.

PAIGE: What enterprise in the world can you name that's growing and prospering where there are no standards? Why should, in 2005, we have to defend the use of standards in education? And the No Child Left Behind Act and the accountability that's embedded in federal policy now, is the right thing to do.

GREENE: What we did before accountability systems were in place is that we trusted education professionals to do the best they could. And that whatever they produced, we assumed was the best they could. The problem with that approach is that it didn't produce good results. It produced really lousy results.

NARRATOR: But a growing number of educators are asking, "Is the very premise flawed?"

KIMBALL: Well, the No Child Left Behind is based on the Houston Miracle that we all know didn't happen. It's based on lies and myths and just falsifying data and cheating. And you know -- and that's what the whole country is, you know, looking at.

SEWELL: We are handed students who now have been conditioned for a good 12 years to think that there is a single, correct answer. And that is not reality. That is not life. There is a spectrum of ways to think about the problem.

And the other sorts of skills, real critical thinking, that students need. It's not being emphasized. And I think that's a really important need that needs to be addressed. And without it being addressed, you can have all the tests in the world, but it's not going to make a significant difference in education.


O'BRIEN: There is a growing grassroots rebellion against No Child Left Behind. Several states are thinking of foregoing federal education money, rather than comply with the federal law. Utah is at the forefront. The state legislator recently voted to snug the No Child Left Behind tests in favor of their own. The state may lose $76 million in federal money as a result.

And just last month, the largest teacher organization, along with nine school districts in three states, filed suit, hoping to force the Bush administration to provide more money to pay for the additional rules and regulations.

That's it for this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Miles O'Brien. Thanks for joining us.


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