When I knocked on her door late last year, Sonia S. had just returned from the county hospital after giving birth. She had no idea why I'd come to her home in a poor neighborhood in El Paso, Texas. I told her I'd found her name on a list of public school students who'd once taken a high-stakes test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), while attending Bowie High School. The list indicated that Sonia had failed the test in the past and was predicted to fail in the future.
I asked her if she'd been kicked out of high school. “Yes,” she said, juggling her newborn boy on her hip. That had happened two-and-a-half years earlier. Now she was 20 years old.
**Listen to Sonia, as she cares for her baby, describe recurring dreams of still being in high school:
Not far away, I found Leo G., also 20, living with his mother and his pregnant girlfriend in public housing. He, too, was on the TAKS predicted-failure list and had been kicked out of school. So had Yanderier G., 22, whom I located after finding Sonia and Leo. Yanderier told me she'd once aspired to attend college, become an accountant and start her own business. None of that had happened — now she was working in the kitchen at a pizza restaurant. She invited me in, made coffee and started weeping.
TAKS was administered to Texas children under the mandates of a 2001 federal law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which set a benchmark for 100-percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014. States were required to show “adequate yearly progress” toward the goal, mostly through standardized testing. Good scores on the tests would lead to rewards for schools, administrators and teachers. Bad scores would provoke punishment, including closing schools and firing teachers. (TAKS has since been replaced by a newer and more difficult test called State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.)
At the 2004 Republican National Convention, President George W. Bush broke into Texas-accented Spanish to translate “No Child Left Behind” to “No dejaremos a ningún niño atrás.” “By testing every child,” he intoned, “we are identifying those who need help.”
But, as the experiences of Leo, Sonia and Yanderier attest, No Child Left Behind has not helped. Instead, it has done inestimable damage to countless young people nationwide, a disproportionate number of whom are Latino. As a result of testing every child, many low scorers have been kicked out of school.
In New York City, from 2001 to 2004, thousands of struggling students were counseled to leave high school and enroll in adult education and GED classes, so they would not have to take exams whose pass-fail rates figured in the way the New York City educational system was evaluated by the federal government. In Birmingham, Ala., in 2002, school officials admitted they had kicked out 522 students and told them to get GEDs — again, to raise Birmingham’s high-stakes test scores. In Orlando, Fla., over two years, one high school “transferred” 440 academically weak students out of school and into GED programs — and almost all of them simply dropped out. Then there was Houston, where assistant principals and deans worked as “bouncers,” collaring weak students in the halls and ordering them to the office. There, they were kicked out of school and told to find alternative education. The school district did not follow up to see if they'd done so.
In city after city, most of the adversely affected were students of color.
As word spread about NCLB-related misconduct, these young people came to be known as victims of “push-out,” a policy that education-rights activists vigorously denounce. In 27 states, including Texas, students have the right to remain in public school until they turn 21, and banishing them to GED programs is illegal.
Even so, the practice has continued. In El Paso, as recently as three years ago, hundreds of other Latino young people were illegally diverted to GED programs. The crime has been covered by Texas and national media, but reporting has concentrated on the law-breakers, with little attention paid to the damage done to the students who had been pushed out. That’s why I went looking for Yanderier, Sonia and Leo.
Bowie High School, named for Jim Bowie of Bowie knife fame, a Texas hero who died in 1836 at the battle of the Alamo, sits hard on the border by the Rio Grande River. Government subsidized lunches are the norm at Bowie, and the surrounding neighborhood, filled with crumbling homes and apartments baking in desert sun, is one of the most destitute in the nation. Even so, Bowie is a beloved community institution.
El Paso's population is 81 percent Latino, mostly Mexican-American or Mexican immigrants. Many are non-English speakers without papers, mostly living in dire poverty. Parents and children suffer injustice quietly, in powerlessness and fear. They are easy to exploit, especially when they lead troubled lives.
Yanderier, Sonia and Leo had troubles.
Leo's were not only academic. They were also behavioral, possibly dating to events of his early childhood. When Leo was 4, his 1-year-old brother, Sergio, was stricken with terminal cancer. Leo's single mother had no family member to leave Leo with while she dealt with the dying child. Leo spent months, day and night, in group daycare, rarely seeing his mother. Leo was 7 when Sergio died. By age 8, he had developed problems concentrating, studying and controlling his emotions when he felt frustrated. By fifth grade he'd been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and he was put on Concerta, a medicine similar to Ritalin and commonly used to treat ADHD. As the years passed and he acted out in ways typical of children with ODD and ADHD, Leo was punished by being sent for months to an alternative school for unruly children.
According to Leo's school records, he failed almost every TAKS test he ever took, starting in fifth grade. There is no evidence in Leo's extensive records that anyone at his school investigated the reason for so many failures.
Sonia says that her father was a drug addict, and at age 7 she was sent to live with her grandmother. But Sonia's grandmother worked full time, so her roommate, Sonia's godmother, was tasked with caring for Sonia. The roommate despised both the job and Sonia. When no one else was in the house, she pulled Sonia’s hair, cursed at her, and called her a víbora — in Spanish, a snake — and una mala niña, a bad girl.
Years later, now that she has her own child, Sonia has been thinking about the way her godmother's verbal abuse became a self-fulfilling prophecy. At age 14, Sonia started acting like a bad girl. Previously a good student, she refused to study. She ditched classes and fought with other girls. She called her teachers names.
And she started failing the TAKS test.
Yanderier's family is Mexican and when she was a child, they all lived on the Mexican side of the border, in Ciudad Juárez. But Yanderier was born in El Paso and is a U.S. citizen. As the only child in the family with U.S. citizenship, Yanderier had always been the centerpiece of her parents' ambitions, especially her father's. He expected her to work in the United States when she reached adulthood and to live the American dream.
When Yanderier was told she couldn’t enter public high school in Juárez because she was not a Mexican, she moved in with her brother, who lived in El Paso, so she could study there. In 2005, Yanderier enrolled in the 10th grade at Bowie High School.
Yanderier vividly remembers her first days at Bowie. She spoke almost no English, but a teacher welcomed her, telling her she would learn quickly and do just fine. Yanderier settled in, and soon was reading, writing and speaking English. She made friends and joined Bowie’s Junior ROTC program.
When Yanderier started at Bowie, she often spotted Bowie's principal, a tall, kind-faced man named Lionel Rubio, walking the halls and chatting with students. Many were indigent and in all kinds of material and emotional distress. Rubio listened attentively and sympathetically as students discussed their problems. So did many other educators at Bowie.
In early 2006, the El Paso school district hired a new superintendent, Lorenzo García. He had previously been a high-level school administrator in Dallas. As soon as García assumed his new post in El Paso, he announced he would take aggressive steps to deal with the city’s campuses that were rated academically unacceptable by the state — especially the worst performing high school, Bowie.
Not long after García's announcement, Principal Rubio left Bowie. In early 2008, the job went to Jesus Chavez, a school administrator García brought into the district from out of town. That's when things started to change, say Yanderier, Leo, and Sonia (who, like Leo, was in 9th grade at the time).
According to Yanderier, Chavez seemed cold and unfeeling. He seldom had a good word for students and did not walk around the school. Instead, according to another student, the halls became inundated with security cameras.
Students began to notice weird goings-on at the international bridge near campus — specifically, Bowie administrators stationed there with cameras. What the students didn’t know was that García had ordered an employee to take photos of students crossing in the morning from Juárez to identify which ones did not live in El Paso. For generations, a custom of this bi-national community was to recognize that kids tended to have complicated citizenship and living arrangements, and it was far better to educate them than to deny them over where they slept at night. But Garcia's main concern was that bi-national students tended to have limited English skills and would likely score low on TAKS tests. They needed to go.
García also focused on longtime El Paso residents with academic problems. He began banishing them using methods that were unabashedly criminal. Among other illegal actions, he designed a scheme that prevented students who could not be expected to pass the TAKS exam from taking the test. He ordered that those students be kicked out of school.
To identify which students to target, García had his underlings use a computer program called INOVA that generated a report of how each Bowie student had done on the high stakes exams in the past and predicted whether the student would pass the next time around. The official purpose of this forecasting was to identify students who needed help to improve their test scores. García devised an off-label use — to help push out those students.
Leo was one of the first to go. When the fall semester started at Bowie in 2008, he was called into the office and told he should transfer to the GED program at Sunset High School, a facility for adult learning, where students must be 17 to enroll. Leo was 16, but was sent anyway.
Three months after enrolling at Bowie, Yanderier moved back in with her father in Juárez. Her grades were good, but she suffered from test anxiety and consistently failed the TAKS. At the end of her junior year she started having attendance problems — with often hours-long delays on the bridge,Yanderier frequently arrived at school late.
In the fall of 2008, after failing to graduate the previous spring, Yanderier arrived at Bowie to repeat her senior year. She was 18. That October, Bowie administrators called her into the office and told her that she was too old to be a student. She was ordered to turn in her textbooks and leave. She did so, not knowing she had the legal right to remain at Bowie until she was 21.
*Listen to Yanderier talk about what happened on the day she was pushed out of high school:
Sonia, who had also failed the TAKS, left a year after Yanderier. Sonia's problems went back to early 2008, when campus police cited her and sent her to criminal court for calling a teacher the Spanish equivalent of a “fucking old man.” Sonia says that when she later pulled a student's hair, neither the principal nor any school counselor talked to her about her problems. She got another court date and another criminal record. In November 2009, she went to Bowie's administration office and said she wanted to drop out of school.
She was 17, and by law in Texas, students must stay in school until they are 18. But Sonia and her grandmother say that instead of intervening, Bowie administrators told Sonia, “If anyone asks, just say you went to Juárez.” Her withdrawal form lists her reason for leaving Bowie as moving to another country. With this classification, Bowie did not have to count Sonia as a drop-out, which would have looked bad for the school under NCLB mandates.
Sonia didn't go to another country. She stayed in El Paso, utterly bored. Three months after dropping out, she put on her best clothes and went back to Bowie to re-enroll. She was told that since she was a chronic misbehaver who was just a few weeks shy of 18, she could not come back to school. She returned to Bowie two more times, she says, begging to be allowed back in. She says she was refused both times. She didn't know that drop-outs have the legal right to re-enroll until they turn 21.
García's cheating scheme worked. After the academically weak and the behavior-problem students — los problemáticos, they were called by Bowie administrators — were kicked out, TAKS scores at the school jumped. They rose so dramatically that Bowie went from being a school in trouble to an “acceptable” school by the state standards. García received more than $56,000 in bonuses. He was nominated twice for Texas superintendent of the year.
But the plan started unraveling in 2009, when Dan Wever, a former school board trustee, noticed that the school’s 2007 freshman class had 381 students, but the next fall’s sophomore class contained only 170. Suspicious, Wever told then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh what he had found, and the two began digging further. Then the FBI looked into another García scheme — a fake, $450,000 contract he’d given to a girlfriend. Meanwhile, the El Paso Times, the city’s daily newspaper, conducted its own investigation of alleged cheating at Bowie, and the FBI started a probe. Last year, Garcíawas convicted on fraud charges and sentenced to 42 months in federal prison. He is the country’s first school superintendent convicted of fraud and for faking test scores for monetary gain.
Principal Jesus Chavez resigned last year. Not long afterward, the authority of the local school board was suspended and replaced with a state-appointed board of managers who are mandated to run the El Paso district for as long as two years. The president of this board, Dee Margo, is a Republican and former Texas state representative. In the legislature two years ago, he voted for $5.4 billion in cuts to public education.
A sword of Damocles hangs over venerable public education institutions, like Bowie, that serve the poor and new speakers of English — the constant threat that if these students don’t produce good enough scores, their schools will be closed. Educators tend to ignore the problems of learning-disabled students and those with emotional issues, and to punish instead of help. High stakes testing also encourages a mean obsession with identifying exactly which immigrants deserve public resources, versus which ones don't — and that can spur fear and strife in communities.
According to New York University education scholar Pedro Noguera, even if students don't get pushed out of school, high-stakes testing fails to increase their knowledge or ability to succeed in college. “Kids are not getting an education,” he says. The achievement gap between affluent students and poor students, white students and minority students, “is about inequality,” he says. “And we're not addressing inequality with high-stakes testing.”
Meanwhile, push-out continues, at least in New York City. Jennifer Solar, of Advocates for Children, a civil rights group for local students, says her organization is currently documenting cases of 18-year-olds being pushed out of schools. Noguera points out that as long as high-stakes testing remains policy, little can be done to completely eliminate this kind of cheating. It's easy for an administrator to convince a struggling 18- or 19-year-old that studying for the GED might be more productive than staying in school.
After Christmas last year, the El Paso school district announced it would find pushed-out students and offer them compensatory schooling. The state legislature passed a bill making such services mandatory.
But the district's search has proved largely unproductive. Many students have moved from their former addresses and have not been located. Others now have spouses, partners, kids, jobs and complicated schedules. But rather than tailoring class times and locations to fit individual circumstances, the school district has offered hours-long classes at fixed locations, only on weekdays. Of hundreds of El Paso students estimated to have been pushed out of school, only 19 have been located who were able or willing to return to classes.
Leo has spent the last three-and-a-half years working part-time for a care facility for sick and old people. He makes a few hundred dollars a month. He feels trapped without a high school diploma, unable to get a decent job and unable to support his girlfriend and the couple’s 1-year-old daughter.
Being found and interviewed for this article made him aware for the first time that his educational rights had been violated. He found an attorney with the local branch of Disability Rights Texas, which has filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency on behalf of four former El Paso students. The complaint concerns the district's failure to provide special education services to children like Leo who clearly deserved them. According to disability rights attorney Constance Wannamaker, the complaint is in the process of being settled. When it is, Leo will be offered GED study opportunities tailored to his schedule and his special-education needs.
Yanderier has not spoken with her father since her last day at Bowie. When she broke the news to him that afternoon, he went into a rage. “You don't want to do anything with your life!” he yelled. “You're a nothing.” She thinks obsessively about the day, and the conversation.
*Listen to Yanderier talk about her relationship with her father, and the damage she feels, years later, from being pushed out:
Yanderier ended up going back to Juárez to get a high school diploma from a private school. Then she married Jonathan J., an El Pasoan and Bowie classmate who was also pushed out of school. After learning during our interview that her rights had been violated, Yanderier sought out education activists in El Paso who are working to eliminate high-stakes testing. At the urging of one of the activists, Yanderier enrolled in the local community college, on an associate-degree track in accounting. She hopes one day to work in an El Paso bank.
Sonia, now 21, lives in El Paso with her husband, Adan, and their 1-year-old son, Aron. Since being denied enrollment at Bowie more than three years ago, Sonia has made several attempts to finish high school at an adult education program. But the baby, and the need to work, constantly interrupt her. She enrolled in summer school this year, but then Adan lost his job as a mechanic. On the second day of summer school, Sonia got a call from a business where she’d applied earlier. They said they had an opening. Again she quit school. Now she's working at a gas station as a cashier.
Bowie continues to haunt her. She says, “Sometimes I dream about being in school with my friends — in class, working, writing. Then I wake up, knowing it was just a dream. That I can't go back.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations with support from the Puffin Foundation and Newspaper Tree.