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Houston Chronicle

FOCUS: Equal Education For Hispanics / Keeping Students In School / Forum's Goals: Fewer Dropouts, More Collegians


February 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Houston Chronicle. All Rights Reserved.

AUSTIN - With the possibility of national high-stakes testing facing students before they can graduate, a forum on "Latinos and Educational Equity" last month took on a more urgent air.

The Jan. 26 forum at the University of Texas at Austin was attended by approximately 600 people, including some well-known educators and state legislators. The forum was organized to discuss how to keep Hispanic students from dropping out or being pushed out of school and encouraging them to continue on to college.

Although professors from UT, Rice University, the University of Houston and Harvard University provided the research and statistics, the phrase that drew the most applause came from Carol Holst of Parents United to Reform TAAS Testing.

"No mas TAAS! Enough is enough," said the Houston suburban mother and substitute teacher, referring to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the state's basic skills test.

Holst said her son and other students worry more about learning the "trivial content" needed to pass the test than about understanding the subject matter.

"One test is only a snapshot of that time period, and to make passing one test a requirement to get a high school diploma is unethical," she said. "It is going to get worse as it spreads to other states. Tests are going to be used to sort, separate and segregate people."

Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, a former teacher and principal, said a bill has been filed in the Legislature to dismantle the TAAS, and another bill will be filed to require legislators to take the test.

"I don't mind testing if it's diagnostic, but if it's required to be promoted, I have a problem with that," Rangel said. "We are penalizing students and not looking at the schools or teachers or what problems we need to resolve.

"Bless Dr. Steve Murdock (Texas A&M University professor and state demographer), who is scaring the heck out of Texas by predicting that minorities will be the majority of our workforce, and we'll be cheating ourselves out of good service if they are not educated."

But Linda McNeil, co-director of Rice University's Center for Education, said Texas and the nation have been fed the "big lie" of "leaving no child behind" - a common slogan in President Bush's campaign last year.

"Of the 14 worst cities in graduating students, six are in Texas. Houston, touted as `the miracle urban school district,' is 93rd of the 100th largest cities, below Detroit and New York City," McNeil said.

"We, in such a rich state as Texas, have no excuse for what our children rank. We are leaving tens of thousands of kids behind."

Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said she attended the forum for "ammo" this legislative session as the state budget is created.

"School funding has been equalized around the state, but it is not equally distributed within the school districts. In (the Houston Independent School District), much of the funding goes to the Lamars, Bellaires and Lees (high schools), while we have schools like Davis with no library," Farrar said.

Instead, Farrar said, Davis High School students in north Houston go across the street to a public library.

The educators advised Farrar to compile an inventory of area schools' needs so comparisons can be made. McNeil also suggested investigating why so many Hispanics who begin as freshmen at East End schools fail to make it to their senior year.

On the other end of the test debate, Joseph Johnson and Uri Treisman, UT's directors of the Dana Center for Science and Mathematics, praised the standards.

"Texas is more likely to require essays of three or more pages," Johnson said. "The students are also allowed to read more in class. It's important to acknowledge that this testing has caused the system to take notice of the kids who are not doing well."

Treisman said: "We know testing is not a panacea. But we also must understand its strengths and how it will continue to have high stakes both in business and politics."

Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, said segregation in schools remains an issue.

At least 46 percent of minority students attend schools that are "intensively segregated" by race and poverty, Orfield said.

"But the typical white student attends a school that is 70 percent or more white," he said. "Yet we still deny that segregation is a problem."

A group of 30 Hispanic teens said they thought the forum was important enough to awaken at 4:30 a.m. and travel about 200 miles from Uvalde to Austin to speak to the audience of educators and state legislators.

Andrew Rendon, an eighth-grader at the Gabriel Tafolla Charter School in Uvalde, asked, "How are we supposed to have higher learning when schools don't have enough textbooks, or you have one teacher teaching two classes at the same time?

"I believe in the TAAS, but I also believe in getting an equal education and opportunity."

The second part of the forum, sponsored by UT's Center for Mexican- American Studies, focused on getting Hispanic students into college.

Most praised the Texas "Top 10" percent plan, which grants automatic admission to state universities to the top graduates of each high school.

They said the focus now should be on ensuring that all schools, regardless of wealth, graduate a top 10 percent that are equally educated and qualified.

Patricia Gandara, a professor at the University of California- Davis, said California has a similar "four percent plan," but she estimated a "real drying up of the pipeline" for Hispanic college graduates.

Jorge Chapa, a professor at Indiana University, said the Hopwood court decision, which bans the use of race as a prime factor in deciding college admissions, contradicts two other federal court decisions that allow race to be considered in other states.

"What we have pending is most likely to go before the U.S. Supreme Court," Chapa said. "There are already four or five justices against - and the president adds to the odds against - affirmative action. So what is Hopwood could easily become the law of the land."

UT regent Tony Sanchez, who has been considering a run for governor, wrapped up the forum by saying: "We are in a crisis today in Texas. The education system is failing too many of our children, and too many officials are merely a cheerleader for politics."

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