Standardized Tests: The Tale of Two Latino Teachers

By James J. Lyons, Esq.

Hispanic Link News Service

I remember reading in the early 1980s a terse news story, only a few paragraphs in length, about the Educational Testing Service’s corporate decision to re-test students in Los Angeles who had done extraordinarily well on the Advanced Placement exam in calculus.

The students, who attended Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, were Hispanic and poor. Not said, but implied, was that their high scores were fraudulent, the product of cheating and chicanery.

They were retested and the results were the same; the impoverished Latino students passed the extremely rigorous exam, winning college credit for college-level calculus. There was no fraud involved, just a passionate Bolivian immigrant teacher by name of Jaime Escalante.

Jaime Escalante’s story inspired the movie “Stand and Deliver” and actor Edward James Olmos received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of this immigrant teacher.

Released in 1988, “Stand and Deliver” taught two potent lessons about schooling: don’t underestimate the academic ability of students who are poor and Hispanic, and don’t dismiss the power of a passionate Latino teacher.

Now I read a longer news story about a 39-year-old Hispanic teacher from the eastern part of Los Angeles. Rigoberto Ruelas loved teaching. He started as a teacher aide at Miramonte Elementary School when he was 22. Four years later, after receiving his education degree and credential, he returned to Miramonte as a fifth-grade teacher. Last week, Rigoberto taught his last class. This past weekend, Rigoberto committed suicide.

Rigoberto was deeply depressed. Not because he had been laid off or terminated as so many teachers have been in California and elsewhere because of our “under-performing” economy. He was depressed because his name had been listed in a controversial database created and published by the Los Angeles Times. It identified him as slightly “less effective” than other L.A. teachers. The database and its publication are part of a nationwide campaign to “reform” education.

The education “reform” campaign has been a major plank in President Obama’s mid-term election platform. Both the President and his basketball playing buddy from Chicago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, refer to education as the civil rights challenge of our time, citing the dismal high-school completion and college attendance rates of racial and ethnic minority students.

This “education reform” campaign is radically different from the grassroots civil rights movements which shaped U.S. history. It is the brainchild of the Business Roundtable and has been bankrolled by billionaires. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Eli Broad (founder of SunAmerica, now part of the financial/insurance behemoth AIG which taxpayers bailed out), and the Walton family members who control the global retail empire known as Walmart are just a few of the hugely wealthy folks funding the campaign.

Little wonder then that the campaign has been the object of unprecedented media coverage. Little wonder that the back-to-school programming of the major television networks, both broadcast and cable, has given wall-to-wall coverage to the campaign’s Holy Grail: higher standardized test scores in math and reading.

And little wonder that the Los Angeles Times created and published its database of teacher effectiveness based on student standardized test scores. The media, whether broadcast or print, live off of advertising revenue, and big corporations are the biggest advertisers.

Despite repeated warnings by experts in education testing and statistics that the Times database of teacher-ratings were unreliable and misleading, the paper published its grades for about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Education Secretary Duncan cheered and urged newspapers across the country to follow the Times example.

According to LAUSD officials, Rigoberto Ruelas was incredibly dedicated, with an almost perfect work attendance performance during his 14-year teaching career. According to parents whose children he taught, Rigoberto would work late into the evening to boost his students’ aspirations and academic performance through after-school tutoring and homework assistance.

Most important of all, many of the students he taught report that Rigoberto challenged and inspired them to stay in school, away from gangs, and to graduate from college – even many years after they left his fifth-grade classroom.

Ruelas family members and teacher colleagues at Montamonte, say Rigoberto was depressed at being rated “average” in his ability to raise students’ English scores and “less effective” in his ability to raise math scores and slightly “less effective” than his peers. He became so despondent with his “failure” that he took his own life.

And so a teacher who could have helped thousands of poor, immigrant and Latino students climb the educational ladder “failed” to measure up to a misleading performance standard, and in despair “dropped out” of the teaching profession he loved, away from the children for whom he lived.
If there is a Heaven, he is surely now in the company of Jaime Escalante, who died in March of this year at the age of 79.

James J. Lyons, is a civil rights policy attorney in Arlington, Va.  He is a former staff member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and served in the Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter.  For 16 years he was lobbyist for and then executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.  His email is jamesjohnlyons@comast.net

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8 responses to “Standardized Tests: The Tale of Two Latino Teachers

  1. James;
    You know, I flashed on that scene in S&D where we see Jaime crossing a bridge from the other side. I recall it’s after they’ve stolen his car and he walks home, and he pauses near the middle…his glasses? It’s been a long time. I very much enjoyed your post.

    • James J. Lyons, Esq.

      M. Mezger,
      Read the posts at blackdahliareader.info and am angered and saddened in full agreement. Only comfort is knowing that this too shall pass. Worry about the teachers we will lose and the children who will not benefit from them.

  2. Hello,
    I’m enjoying your blog, linking on Facebook.
    I remember this actually.
    I used to avidly follow all of these articles and somehow in my memory this one was a little placeholder as I definitely thought about how it must have felt to these students.
    To have to hold on their shoulders such stuff that failed to congratulate hem , but instead questioned the possibility.
    I’ve been trying to think to how to speak to this death, of this teacher.
    And be respectful, because in my anger over this, I know I would have the tendency to want to use his death to speak to my perceptions. You do such a good job of putting this in a respectful context.

    Perhaps he gave his life so that we might stop and think about what we are doing.

    • James J. Lyons, Esq.

      Whether Rigoberto took his life so that we might stop and think about what we are doing, I do not know. But we must stop, reflect, and then move ahead with passion and vigor. Thanks for caring so much Sarah.

  3. I, of course, knew that Bill Gates was involved in the recent education reform movement, but I did not know about the other mega-corporate involvement. And let’s not forget all of those educational testing companies and textbook publishers who charge $70 for a textbook because they can. The media blitz and bias now makes so much sense. There is most certainly a connection between: our inability to pass an effective and socially just health care reform, the recent Supreme Court ruling giving corporations carte blanche campaign spending rights, our dismal showing at the ecological conference in Copenhagen, and corporations’ fingers in the education pot. In my mind, one of the key items on our agenda as citizens must be to begin chipping away at the power that’s been handed to big business.

    • James J. Lyons, Esq.

      And the first step in chipping away, Robin, is to educate ALL children to be critical, free, an independent thinkers who are curious about everything and willing to speak up about all injustices. Thanks for your comment.

    • Re: CU v. FCC, Campaign finance. Glen Greenwald has argued that the Supreme Court has correctly returned that question to the individual states, and I agree. The Federal government has no constitutional role in elections. Reforming elections, like holding elections, is strictly the responsibility of the state. In other words, if you want to say, ban private campaign finance entirely, and you pass a law against it in say, Illinois, and you take Chief Justice Roberts at his work, the Court would not intervene. So that’s the place to fix elections, on the local level. There is nothing wrong with our democratic system that can’t be fixed with just a little more” turnout on November 4. “The future begins today,” said Pope John Paul, not tomorrow.”

  4. Mr. Lyons,
    After 37 years in education, the past 32 spent in public high schools, I am seriously considering retirement — but NOT because I don’t love the kids and don’t belive that I am helping them. It is because I am growing existentially tired of the garbage that keeps coming down the pipeline from our central administration. They purport to care about kids, but all they care about is test scores and technology. I would love for them to get out of my classroom already and let me TEACH, because I KNOW that I do that very effectively. Instead, I have to come up with inane internet activities and shove the initiative du jour down their throats. This year, the mantra is, “We have to raise these SAT scores!!!” Well, perhaps if you got out of my business and let me do what you hired me to do, that might happen. Or perhaps if you acknowledged the fact that some kids are going to be wonderful auto mechanics, caterers, and plumbers who don’t NEED high SAT scores, I could focus my time on helping them be literate, critical thinkers.
    Actually, that’s what I do. I just shut the door to Room 75 and teach them what I think best. But not everyone, particularly not teachers new to the profession, has the ability and unmitigated gall to do that.
    My daughter is studying to be an elementary school teacher. She loves kids and is very excited about teaching. I hope the “big guys” don’t pound that enthusiasm out of her.
    Regards,
    Rebecca

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