A Trinity of Counter-Narrative: NCLB-Style Standards, High-Stakes Testing, and Accountability

Last week I was told that I was a “intellectually unrigorous pseudo-scholar” and “obsessed” with being perceived as important and influential.” My response to the microaggression?

At the core of my being, I do what I do everyday because I hope that the counter-narratives that we discuss here on Cloaking Inequity will impact equity and the educational opportunities of children. Thank you for joining me each week in this endeavor.

Life can be a rollercoaster sometimes can’t it? Now, I have some good news to share(!!), but first let me say this. There are three peer reviewed articles that I consider a trinity (a hot leather body suit and cool sunglasses) of peer-reviewed counter-narrative about the impact of standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability.

The first, was based on my dissertation.  In 2009, it won the University of Texas Co-op Hamilton Research Excellence Award for Best Research Paper. This was despite being “called into the principal’s office” (ask me about this the next time you see me in person if you are curious about what I mean) regarding the paper.

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Vasquez Heilig, J. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Accountability Texas-style: The progress and learning of urban minority students in a high-stakes testing contextEducational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 30(2), 75-110.

This study examines longitudinal student progress and achievement on the elementary, middle, and high school levels in relation to accountability policy incentives in a large urban district in Texas. Using quantitative analyses supplemented by qualitative interviews, the authors found that high-stakes testing policies that rewarded and punished schools based on average student scores created incentives for schools to “game the system” by excluding students from testing and, ultimately, school. In the elementary grades, low-achieving students were disproportionately excluded from taking the high-stakes Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests, demonstrating gains not reflected on the low-stakes Stanford Achievement Test-Ninth Edition. Student exclusion at the elementary level occurred through special education and language exemptions and missing scores. Furthermore, gaming strategies reduced educational opportunity for African American and Latino high school students. Sharp increases in 9th-grade student retention and disappearance were associated with increases in 10th-grade test scores and related accountability ratings.

The second, published in Teachers College Record, focused specifically on the impact of standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability on English Language Learners. See also The Voice interview and a 2011 keynote on ELLs and exit testing at the US Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition on UStream.


Vasquez Heilig, J. (2011). Understanding the interaction between high-stakes graduation tests and English language learnersTeachers College Record, 113(12), 2633–2669.

This article underscores the legitimacy of the concern that ELs experience unintended consequences associated with high-stakes exit testing and accountability policy and suggests that social justice and equity are ratiocinative critiques of high-stakes testing and accountability policies. The next round of federal and state educational policy must be a mandate that provides support for ELs to meet performance standards by providing evidence-based solutions: appropriate curriculum, pedagogy, and well-trained teachers. Furthermore, policy makers, practitioners, and researchers should be cognizant of the less intrusive approach that many ELs and their families have toward schools by reconsidering whether “one size fits all” high-stakes exit testing policies are plausible for increasingly heterogeneous student populations. The use of multiple measures of EL student success in content areas, such as portfolios, is an accountability mechanism that makes sense, not just for ELs, but for all students.

The third, is a compendium of the EEPA and TCR papers.In this paper, we considered the responses of educational personnel to the current high stakes accountability environment in Texas, paying particular attention to risk management behaviors, what we called at-risk student averse— a new conceptualization for accountability responses. The paper was previously given an award by the Journal of Educational Administration. I discussed it here: “Tiger Blood, Man”: A. Ross Thomas Highly Commended Paper.


Vasquez Heilig, J., Young, M. & Williams, A. (2012). At-risk student averse: Risk management and accountability. Journal of Educational Administration, 50(5).

The prevailing theory of action underlying accountability is that holding schools and students accountable will increase educational output. While accountability’s theory of action intuitively seemed plausible, at the point of No Child Left Behind’s national implementation, little empirical research was available to either support or critique accountability claims or to predict the long term impact of accountability systems on the success of at-risk students and the schools that served them.  The findings reported in this paper challenge the proposition that accountability improves the educational outcomes of atrisk students and indicates that low-performing Texas high schools, when faced with the press of accountability, tend to mirror corporate risk management processes with unintended consequences for at-risk students. Low-scoring at-risk students were often viewed as liabilities by school personnel who, in their scramble to meet testing thresholds and accountability goals, were at-risk student averse— implementing practices designed to “force kids out of school.”

My hope is that you can weaponize this research. Now, for the good news I received today!!

Dear Dr. Heilig,

Every year Emerald invites each journal’s Editorial Team to nominate what they believe has been that title’s Outstanding Paper and up to three Highly Commended Papers from the previous year (2012). Your paper has been included among these and I am pleased to inform you that your article entitled “At-risk student averse: risk management and accountability” published in Journal of Educational Administration has been chosen as a Highly Commended Award Winner at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence 2013.

The award winning papers are chosen following consultation amongst the journal’s Editorial Team, many of whom are eminent academics or practitioners. Your paper has been selected as it was one of the most impressive pieces of work the team has seen throughout 2012.

Further information regarding the Awards for Excellence can be found at the following site: www.emeraldinsight.com/literati

We will be adding the 2013 winners shortly and when we do your article will be freely available here for one month. I will e-mail you again as soon as your paper has been added and made freely available. You should expect to receive your awardcertificate through the post within the next couple of months.

Alternatively, we do aim to present the awards where possible at relevant conference events. If you are attending a conference where we have Emerald representation, I may be able to organise a presentation for you.

If you could reply to this e-mail with details of any conferences you plan to attend, I will see what I can arrange for you. If a presentation can be arranged, then I will get in touch with you to confirm this.

In the meantime you may wish to spread the news of your success, let your friends and colleagues know, or perhaps mention it under your e-mail signature. More tips on how to promote your work are available on our website: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/authors/guides/promote/disseminate.htm

Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have and once again, thank you for writing for an Emerald journal and congratulations on your success!

Kind Regards,

Nelli Rubante

Service Development Assistant | Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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  • Congratulations on your recognition, and thanks for sharing the good news. Keep doing the good things you care about – it can only lead to a better world in the future.


  • Congratulations! I have learned a great from you in the few short months that I have been following you. I do hope you make it Houston for CVPE’s workshop this Sunday May 19th from 2-5 PM at the AFL-CIO building.


  • Monty J. Thornburg

    Perfect! Congratulations Dr. Vasquez H. and while I wish that I could have the ability to complete peer reviewed research as you have done, I’m satisfied with my role. The question is will this move us toward Justice for ALL students?

    As a K-12 teacher/administrator in public schools, 12 years, I can tell you that your research conclusions are empirically correct. This is based on my experience as a district Alternative Education educator. I have seen many examples of the “testing system” being “gamed” by moving students around. In fact, I’m now serving as a demoted administrator, back to being a very satisfied teacher because of “gaming.”

    Now to the Justice question. The best I can come up with comes from John Lewis’ new book, (2012) “Across that Bridge” where he said; “It is only through examining history that you become aware of where you stand within the continuum of change. You may find you are the “voice crying in the wilderness” who will have to walk alone. Or you may find only a few devotees who will join you throughout the whole period of your activism. This does not mean your work is not important. Every contribution is important to the work of change … (p. 70).

    Again, thank you for this Blog and your community service by sharing ideas with the larger community through a counter narrative that must be heard!


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