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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