DISD investigates cheating allegations; Students reportedly received answers to TAAS questions, cash for passing

By Colleen McCain Nelson and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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Dallas Independent School District officials said Wednesday that they are investigating allegations of cheating on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills at Onesimo Hernandez Elementary School.

Dr. William J. Webster, deputy superintendent for evaluation and accountability, said DISD officials have begun interviewing students, staff members and administrators at the school to determine whether the principal and teachers provided answers to test questions or assisted students during last month’s TAAS.

Officials with Edison Schools, the for-profit company that operates Hernandez and six other Dallas elementary schools, said Wednesday that it had thoroughly investigated and dismissed the allegations as unfounded.

“We did our own investigation and reported back to the district that there was nothing whatsoever to these allegations,” said John Chubb, Edison’s chief education officer. “It appeared to be traceable to something somebody saw that wasn’t what they thought it was.”

Dr. Webster also said the district would inquire into reports that students at Hernandez were paid cash for passing the TAAS. Students at at least one other Dallas school, Bryan Adams High School, said they were paid for passing the state test.

Cynthia Romero, the mother of a Hernandez student, told WFAA-TV (Channel 8) that the day the TAAS was given, her daughter’s teacher marked wrong answers with question marks and kept sixth-grader Nicole Vargas after school to correct her answers.

When the school received word this month that students had improved the school’s rating from low-performing to acceptable, Nicole and her classmates who passed the TAAS each received $20, Ms. Romero said.

Neither Ms. Romero nor Deborah Hodridge, the principal at Hernandez, could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Dr. Webster called the practice of paying students for passing the test “unsavory,” but he said district policy does not prohibit monetary rewards.

“Obviously, our main concern is cheating,” Dr. Webster said. “We’ve made it very clear that we don’t condone cheating, and any cheating that we can validate will have very serious consequences.”

The district dispatched its chief assessment officer and chief security officer to Hernandez on Wednesday to begin interviews with staff members and students.

The investigation is a top priority and should be completed within several days, Dr. Webster said.

If teachers or administrators are found to have cheated, they could lose their certification and their jobs, he said.

Two Dallas schools, Harrell Budd Elementary School and Zumwalt Middle School, were found guilty in 1999 of cheating on the TAAS.

Edison took over the management of Hernandez Elementary at the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year.

Dr. Chubb said the company first learned of the allegations of cheating three or four weeks ago. Edison reported its findings to DISD officials within a week of learning of the charges, he said.

He declined to offer specific findings from Edison’s investigation, but he said, “We looked at all the incidents that were cited with the principal supposedly providing help and simply found no merit to them.”

He said officials interviewed every teacher in the school and some students who had allegedly witnessed the incident.

“We simply couldn’t find any substantiating evidence,” he said.

Dr. Chubb said the reports of cash payments originated with the same parent who complained about the allegations of cheating. Edison launched another internal investigation and discovered some evidence that the reports were true, he said.

“It is our belief that, if anything took place, it took place in one classroom with one teacher,” he said, adding that Edison thinks a cash transfer did take place.

Although paying students for passing a test isn’t a violation of district policy, Edison prohibits the practice.

“We certainly believe in celebrating success, but we don’t believe in paying kids one-for-one for test score performance.”

Dallas school board President Roxan Staff said that DISD, like other districts, often uses incentives to encourage students to perform well and follow instructions.

“Ice cream parties, pizza parties, movie tickets – I mean, whether it’s with TAAS or attendance, we have that kind of game we play,” she said.

She said she “probably wouldn’t encourage” cash payments to students for TAAS performance but wanted to leave decisions up to principals and other local campus officials.

At Bryan Adams High School, students said they received up to $50 this month for passing the TAAS. The money was a hit with students, who said it served as an extra incentive to perform well.

“Everybody likes it,” 16-year-old Lisa Alaniz said. “It was an added bonus.”

After Bryan Adams received its TAAS results, school counselors passed out checks to those who passed, said Gena Duncan, 16.

“I think some people just don’t really care about the test,” she said. “But if there’s money involved, that’s different.”

Bryan Adams Principal Karen Hunt-Ramos, whose signature was on the checks, could not be reached for comment.

Rewards for performing well on the TAAS are common, and many schools offer pizza parties and other incentives to students. And programs such as the O’Donnell Foundation have doled out checks to students who pass Advanced Placement tests.

Bryan Adams student Marcus Dillender said students work harder when they have an incentive.

But Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said TEA Commissioner Jim Nelson has discouraged the practice of paying for performance. Although the state doesn’t specifically prohibit cash incentives, rewarding students for passing the test raises questions about privacy, she said.

“By doing that, the school essentially is making public the students who failed the test,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “We think it’s inappropriate to be paying the kids to pass the test.”

Dallas sees turnaround on TAAS; Scoring gains may raise schools’ state ratings

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Dallas students scored better than ever on this year’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, an improvement that could cut the number of schools with the state’s lowest rating by more than half, district officials said Thursday.

The turnaround also could double the number of Dallas schools that receive the state’s highest rating, meaning there could be 17 schools rated “exemplary” and 12 rated “low-performing” when accountability ratings are issued in August. That would be a reversal of last year, when there were a state-high 28 low-performing schools and only eight rated exemplary.

Although Dallas students still scored well below the state average and below students in most other area districts, the district is improving at a faster clip than the state average.

“This should show we’re serious about student achievement,” Superintendent Mike Moses said. “We’re going to be relentless, tenacious. We’re going to be after student gains every day that we have our doors open.”

Most districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area showed improvements on the TAAS that were similar to the statewide gains. The state’s passing rate on all tests improved from 80 percent to 82 percent this year.

Results from some area districts were not available.

In Allen, passing rates on the 10th-grade math test went up from 86 percent in 2000 to 94 percent in 2001. Gains were more modest for other grades.

“Our high school teachers targeted the math and getting those scores up,” Allen Superintendent Jenny Preston said.

The percentage of DISD students passing all sections of the TAAS increased from 59.9 percent last year to 66.2 percent in 2001. Reading and math tests are given to all students in grades three through eight and 10. Students in fourth, eighth and 10th grades also are tested in writing.

Still below average

Despite the improvement, Dr. Moses noted that DISD’s passing rates were still significantly below the state average.

“Obviously, there’s a degree of excitement, but we should be careful about celebrating,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go. It’s not time to declare victory.”

In Dallas, the increases were consistent in nearly every ethnic, racial and income group and on nearly all tests. The percentage of Hispanic students passing all three tests increased by 7.9 percent to 63.8 percent. The rate for black students went up 5.6 percent to 65.4 percent. White students’ passing rates increased 2.9 percent to 84.7 percent.

The rate for students classified as economically disadvantaged jumped 7.1 percent to 62.6 percent.

Reading proved to be the most difficult subject for DISD students, with 75.6 percent passing. On the writing test, 77.6 percent passed; 78.1 percent passed the math test.

Scores also improved on each section of the test for every group with the exception of white students’ rate on the writing test, which dropped slightly. The improvements reduced the performance difference between white and minority students in all categories.

“By just about every measure, we closed the achievement gap,” Dr. Moses said.

In addition to the expected increase in the number of exemplary schools, DISD also expects its number of schools rated “recognized,” the next highest level, to jump from 18 to 30.

A school’s accountability rating is determined by a variety of factors, including dropout and attendance rates, but TAAS performance is the largest component.

Dr. Moses said he had expected an overall gain of 3 percent or 4 percent, not the 6 percent gains the district scored. He also had hoped to reduce the number of low-performing schools by between five and seven, not by 16, which district officials now estimate, he said.

“I don’t know if we can do that every year, but I’m pleased, and it exceeded my expectations,” Dr. Moses said.

Edison performances

Three of the schools projected to be low-performing – Henderson, Medrano and Titche – are among the seven schools being run by the private education company Edison Schools Inc. Henderson and Titche were rated “acceptable” last year.

Two other Edison schools that were rated low-performing last year are expected to become acceptable. Two others are projected to be rated acceptable, the same as a year ago.

Dr. Moses said the performance of Edison schools was comparable to the district as a whole.

He noted that Medrano, though still considered low-performing, saw its scores go up remarkably.

Last year, 38.5 percent of students at Medrano passed the reading portion of TAAS and 49.4 percent passed the math test. Only 6.9 percent of fourth-graders passed the writing test. This year, the passage rates went up 25.5 percent in reading, 21.6 percent in math and 66.1 percent in writing.

“That’s the nice thing about accountability and testing,” Dr. Moses said. “People can measure and follow their school’s performance.”

Staff writer Katie Menzer contributed to this report.

A prankless task: Principals have a few tricks of their own to thwart would-be clowns in caps and gowns

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It was 1985, and principal Bob Densmore was presiding over the graduation ceremony at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson. A senior, apparently overcome with glee, decided to do a cartwheel off the stage after accepting his diploma.

He picked the wrong principal to mess with.

“I told him he’d be spending some time around school that summer doing some work if he wanted to ever get his diploma,” Mr. Densmore said.

Oops. That piece of paper the senior had been handed on stage? Not his real diploma – just a placeholder. And Mr. Densmore doesn’t take kindly to distractions on his graduation stage.

The senior evidently didn’t feel like spending June shelving algebra books, so he skipped out.

“I think that diploma is still in a vault at J.J. Pearce High School,” said Mr. Densmore, now principal at Terrell High School.

This month’s graduation ceremonies will give a healthy dose of temptation to the class clowns of North Texas. Rarely in life do they get the chance to play to a larger or more attentive audience.

Few things make principals more nervous. As a result, districts have come up with a variety of ways to prevent the pranksters from getting the laughs they seek. Schools use everything from signed behavior contracts to metal detectors to persuade seniors to sit tight, walk gracefully and, for heaven’s sake, not do a cartwheel.

“We threaten our seniors to an inch of their lives,” Mr. Densmore said.

Pranks throughout the senior year have their own not-so-proud tradition, and districts usually deal with them strictly. By the time graduation rolls around, some seniors assume they are finally beyond the reach of academic law.

Most pranks tend to be on the minor side. Particularly popular is to hand the principal or superintendent a small object when shaking his or her hand on stage – a penny or marble for the less adventurous, other items for the more lewd.

“I’m always anxious: What if someone hands me a condom? Oh my God, I hope they don’t,” said Joy Barnhart, principal for the last 28 years at W.T. White High School in Dallas.

The Irving school district relies on more than simple trust to keep students in line. All seniors and their parents are required to sign a contract guaranteeing behavior “that brings distinction and honor to myself, my family, my peers, and others who have come to recognize and applaud my achievements.”

“We work hard to maintain a dignified ceremony,” said Lane Ladewig, director of operations for Irving schools. “After we’re done, they can celebrate for the rest of their lives, and they should. But at the ceremony, we want to make sure everybody gets the recognition they deserve in the way they deserve.”

Mr. Ladewig remembered one time several years ago when a student planned a bit of performance art as he walked across the stage. “His parents knew it was going to happen – his mom even had a video camera out to tape it,” said Mr. Ladewig, who couldn’t remember what exactly the student did. “Everybody was laughing, but what about the next kid to come across the stage? How was his trip? People didn’t ever hear his name called.”

The senior didn’t get his diploma until after a principal-parent meeting the next week.

For seniors in Birdville schools, graduation brings more security checks than an international flight. Seniors are scanned with a metal detector and have their palms checked by assistant principals. Once they’re seated, seniors are flanked by teachers and administrators on the lookout for any untoward activity.

“We don’t allow any purses, cameras, backpacks, anything on the floor or in the practice area,” said Adele Kennedy, assistant principal at Birdville’s Haltom High School. “We haven’t had any problems. Our kids are very good.

“Of course now I’ve jinxed myself.”

Ashley Smith, a senior at Haltom who will be giving the final student speech at the graduation ceremony, said she hopes her classmates don’t go overboard.

“I know everybody likes to have fun, but there’s a time and a place for everything,” she said. “When you’ve worked 13 years to be able to walk across the stage and all your family and friends are watching, that’s not the time or place.”

Other districts stop short of contracts and metal detectors but still do their best to emphasize the consequences of goofing off. Usually, seniors are lectured and parents get letters of notice.

Schools have varying standards for what’s acceptable. Mr. Densmore in Terrell said he won’t tolerate much of anything that runs counter to the solemnity of the ceremony. Ms. Barnhart said her standards were a little looser at W.T. White’s graduation Sunday.

“A couple of them did tricky little dance steps on stage. I found that amusing,” she said. “One grabbed me and picked me up into the air, and I didn’t have a problem with that. He had said he was going to spin me around in the air, but I told him I’d be as dizzy as a doorknob if he did that, so he toned it down.”

Mr. Densmore said he hopes he doesn’t have to withhold any more diplomas at Terrell’s graduation Thursday night. “I tell them: ‘I don’t want to, but I will embarrass you if I have to. I’ll pull you out of line, in front of your parents.’ A little ounce of fear is good for them.”

Not that acting up hurt that senior from 1985, whom Mr. Densmore caught up with at his 10-year reunion.

“He’s a very successful businessman now, out in California,” Mr. Densmore said. “Some kind of manufacturing business.”

Later school start draws dirty looks; Districts want to set own calendars

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Attention, amusement park owners: Expect a lot more late-summer business next year than you’re used to.

The Legislature is poised to push the start of school back a few weeks each fall, freeing up more time for late-summer beachcombing and trips to the Grand Canyon.

But many school administrators say they and not the state should decide when school starts.

“If districts determine that what’s best for their students is to start on a certain day, they should be able to make that decision,” Arlington Independent School District Superintendent Mac Bernd said.

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of a bill, sponsored by Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, that would ban schools from starting classes before the week in which Aug. 21 falls unless they receive a state waiver. If signed by Gov. Rick Perry, the law would take effect in 2002.

“Not one of the senators on the floor today started school before Labor Day, and we all turned out fine,” Mr. Lucio said.

Since 1991, when a law requiring a start date no earlier than the week of Sept. 1 was repealed, districts have been able to determine for themselves when the school year starts and ends. Since then, start dates have crept earlier, from early September to mid- or even early August.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area last year, the latest that any school district opened for classes was Aug. 21. Two districts, Plano and Allen, started classes Aug. 3.

Anticipating TAAS

Districts have had a variety of motivations for the shift, including the desire to get in as many instruction days as possible before the spring administration of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Some also have created more one- or two-day holidays during the fall semester.

Earlier school starts have caused problems for some businesses that rely on the open summer schedules of children. Tourist destinations have reported decreased late-summer revenues and have sometimes had to cut back their summer schedules as their teenage employees go back to school.

A December report from the state comptroller’s office estimated that the earlier starts cost the Texas tourism industry $332 million annually.

Schools’ reasons

But several local school leaders say they have reasons for starting school when they do, and the state shouldn’t interfere.

“The calendar ought to be driven first by issues of teaching and learning, not the workforce needs of business and industry,” Dr. Bernd said.

Steve Knagg, who heads the committee that determines the Garland school district’s annual calendar, said the district might have to eliminate several fall holidays. Garland is set to begin school this year on Aug. 13. First to go might be the weeklong Thanksgiving holiday, which would probably be cut to just Thursday and Friday.

“Anytime you take away holidays, you’re going to up the stress level a bit,” Mr. Knagg said. “It’s marvelous to have that time off at Thanksgiving, but we’ve been saying for a while, ‘Enjoy it now, because it probably won’t be around forever.'”

Some officials said their districts might have to end the fall semester after Christmas. “It’s going to be difficult to get 18 weeks of school into that fall semester if you start later,” said Doug Zambiasi, Frisco’s assistant superintendent for administrative services.

Plano Superintendent Doug Otto said his district probably would eliminate its weeklong fall break and push fall semester exams until after Christmas.

Waivers tough to get

The House version of the bill allows districts to apply to the Texas Education Agency for a waiver that would allow them to start classes earlier. But such requests would be limited by stringent standards. Districts would have to take out newspaper ads announcing their intention to seek a waiver and hold public hearings.

“It looks like getting a presidential pardon,” Mr. Zambiasi said.

Texas teachers tend to be split on early start dates, according to Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. Elementary school teachers tend to support a later start, she said, while high school teachers want to start earlier to finish the first semester before Christmas.

On Wednesday, the House sent the measure back to the Senate with the waiver provision it had attached. Senators now must vote to accept the changes or send the bill to a conference committee. Mr. Lucio said he is “very, very strongly” leaning toward accepting the waiver provision. If he does, a majority vote in the Senate would send the bill to the governor.

Vacation flexibility

Some parents said a later start would allow them to be more flexible in their summer vacation plans. Yolanda Hernandez, whose 6-year-old son, Hector, attends Highlands Elementary in Cedar Hill, said she wanted to take a lengthy trip last summer to visit relatives in Colorado.

“I wanted to stay for a few weeks to make the trip worthwhile,” she said. “But we had to get back early to start school [Aug. 14], so I figured it wasn’t worth it to go for just a short time.”

But other parents defended local control of the school calendar.

“Ideally, each district would get to set their own calendar based on the needs of their community,” said Lynette Williams, president of Mesquite’s council of PTAs. Ms. Williams said she’d prefer an earlier start – and the same goes for her youngest, Amy, who will be a senior this fall at Poteet High School.

“My daughter would rather start a little bit earlier and get out earlier, by Memorial Day,” she said. “But that’s not based on solid research. She just wants to get out sooner.”