Celebrated school accused of cheating; Exclusive: TAKS results too good to be true at Houston elementaries

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Houston’s Wesley Elementary may be the most celebrated school in Texas.

When George W. Bush, running for governor in 1994, wanted to declare education his No. 1 priority, he went to Wesley, where desperately poor students outscored children in the wealthiest suburbs.

When Oprah Winfrey wanted to promote a school that “defied the odds,” she took her cameras to Wesley, which has been the subject of dozens of flattering profiles.

But a Dallas Morning News investigation has found strong evidence that at least some of the success at Wesley and two affiliated schools come from cheating.

“You’re expected to cheat there,” said Donna Garner, a former teacher at Wesley who said her fellow teachers instructed her on how to give students answers while administering tests. “There’s no way those scores are real.”

The News’ analysis found troubling gaps in test scores at Wesley, Highland Heights and Osborne elementaries, which are all in the Acres Homes neighborhood in Houston. Scores swung wildly from year to year. Schools made jarring test-score leaps from mediocre to stellar in a year’s time.

After The News shared its findings with Houston officials Thursday, Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra issued a written statement. “We have reviewed the anomalies in the test scores of the Acres Homes schools as pointed out by The Dallas Morning News, and we agree that these anomalies identify performance that is highly questionable.”

If the test scores are to be believed, students at those schools lose much of their academic abilities as soon as they leave elementary school.

In 2003, fifth-graders in the three elementaries fared extremely well on the reading part of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Collectively, they ranked in the top 10 percent of all Texas schools – outscoring high-performing suburban schools in places such as Grapevine, Lewisville and Allen.

The fifth-graders’ math scores were less spectacular but still slightly above the state average.

Steep decline

But a year later, the scores of those same students came crashing down. When they were sixth-graders at M.C. Williams Middle School, they finished in the bottom 10 percent of the state in both reading and math.

A drop-off of that scale is extremely rare in education. According to The News’ analysis, no Texas school saw as large a score drop from fifth to sixth grade as the Acres Homes schools did in reading.

The evidence is not all statistical. Several former teachers and an ex-principal say cheating on standardized tests was an expected part of life at Wesley.

“There are some good kids there, and the teachers are teaching, but the kids are not all Rhodes scholars,” said a former Wesley principal who asked not to be identified, fearing retribution from Houston Independent School District. “There’s no way they can produce those test scores. That’s absurd. They get to middle school, and they can barely write their names.”

Wesley is one of three elementary schools in the Acres Homes Coalition, named after the poor neighborhood they share about 10 miles northwest of downtown.

The neighborhood’s schools were underachievers for years. But in the 1970s, a principal named Thaddeus Lott arrived at Wesley. He instituted a strict curriculum called Direct Instruction, a highly scripted teaching method that emphasizes repetition and memorization and teaching the basic sounds that make up words. Quickly, the school’s scores went from abysmal to stellar.

Wesley’s test scores prompted several low-level cheating investigations involving specific teachers. But none of them found conclusive evidence of cheating. Dr. Lott said the school was being unfairly targeted because of its success.

The conflict became the subject of a 1991 segment on ABC’s PrimeTime Live in which Dr. Lott accused administrators of not promoting him because he’s black. The segment argued that “highly paid bureaucrats who refuse to believe in Acres Homes children” were unfairly harassing Wesley.

The ABC piece made Dr. Lott a national education star. He in particular became a hero to conservative education reformers, who applauded his use of the Direct Instruction and cited the school as proof that urban schools could excel without increases in funding. It became common to see principals and superintendents from other districts on the Wesley campus, searching for the school’s secrets to success.

When Mr. Bush wanted to promote his education plans on the campaign trail in 1994, Wesley was a natural stop. “This man knows how to educate children,” Mr. Bush said of Dr. Lott, whom he called an “education hero” and touted as a strong candidate to be state education commissioner.

In 1995, then-Superintendent Rod Paige gave Dr. Lott the promotion he had wanted. The district created the Acres Home Coalition: Wesley, neighboring elementary schools Osborne and Highland Heights, and the middle school all three feed in to, M.C. Williams. Dr. Lott was put in charge of all four schools and given unprecedented control over instruction and personnel. Test scores increased, but rumors of cheating continued.

Resignation

Dr. Lott resigned the post in 2002, citing family health reasons. Several attempts to contact Dr. Lott on Thursday by telephone were unsuccessful.

This year, The News began a statewide analysis of test scores at Texas’ 7,700 public schools. The newspaper obtained raw scale-score testing data for every school for 2003 and 2004 and has found unusual gaps in nearly 400 schools: schools where students scored extraordinarily well in one grade but very poorly in the next, or where students were near the state’s bottom in reading but had the best math scores in Texas.

As a result of previous stories based on The News’ analysis, cheating investigations have been launched in the Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Amarillo and Wilmer-Hutchins school districts, and a criminal inquiry has begun in Wilmer-Hutchins.

In his statement, Dr. Saavedra said the district is reviewing test scores at all Houston schools after questions were raised by a Dec. 19 News story.

“For the sake of Houston’s children and the thousands of dedicated, professional educators who serve them every day, the integrity of the Houston Independent School District must remain absolutely beyond question,” Dr. Saavedra wrote.

The News’ analysis supports the statements of some teachers at M.C. Williams that students’ skills didn’t match their reputation.

“When we got them, the kids just didn’t perform,” said a former longtime teacher at M.C. Williams, who asked not to be named. About 70 percent of the students in his classes at M.C. Williams arrived performing below grade level, he said, despite their excellent test scores in elementary school.

He said students told him teachers in the elementary schools helped them on standardized tests. “I was giving them a Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test and they asked me, ‘Aren’t you going to help us?'” he said.

Ms. Garner started teaching at Wesley in fall 2001. She immediately noticed her fifth-graders were not the stars their test scores might have led her to expect. “There were kids who couldn’t even write their name,” she said. “Some were just illiterate.”

She was pregnant at the school year’s start, and she went on maternity leave in October. While she was gone, her students took a sample TAAS test – a common practice in districts focused on improving test scores.

When Ms. Garner returned to her class in February, she was shocked to see that all her students has passed the practice TAAS with flying colors – many with perfect or near-perfect scores.

“I asked them all: How did you make this score?” she said. “They all said, ‘The teacher gave me the answers.’ Each and every one of them.”

A few days later, it was time for the school to give another sample TAAS. Ms. Garner gave the test without helping her students; when the results came back, many of her students had failed. She was called into the principal’s office and, she said, told she did not know “how to administer a test the Wesley way.’ ”

She said other teachers told her that at Wesley, children answer each test question together and aren’t allowed to move on to the second question until everyone was finished with the first. The teacher walks around the classroom while students work. If a student answers it correctly, the teacher keeps on walking. But if a student writes down an incorrect answer, the teacher stands behind the student until he changes it to the correct answer.

‘No clue’

Ms. Garner said her students were surprised when it was time for the real TAAS test that spring. “They all just sat there like they had no clue what to do. They said ‘We had no idea we were going to have to take the test ourselves.'”

The former Wesley principal who asked not to be named said he heard the method was used by teachers, although he said he never witnessed it. He did, however, walk in on a classroom that was administering the writing TAAS test, on which students write an essay. He said he saw a teacher reading over a student’s essay and saying, “You need to write some more.”

He said that when he returned to his office, a colleague told him: “Whatever you saw, you had better forget it. You’ll just make it bad for yourself.”

Statistically, The News’ analysis found unusual patterns at all three Acres Homes elementary schools:

*At Highland Heights, the 2004 fifth-grade scores in both math and reading are suspect. In 2003, the school’s fourth-graders had mediocre scores, finishing at the state’s 26th percentile in math and 39th percentile in reading.

But a year later, those same students scored at elite levels in fifth grade. Highland Heights finished in the top 2 percent of the entire state in both reading and math.

*At Wesley, its scores on the old TAAS test – given until 2002 – were consistently strong. Still, the school did not rank among the state’s top handful of performers. Those schools were nearly always magnet schools for high academic achievers or schools in the state’s wealthiest districts.

But in 2003, the first year of the TAKS test, Wesley rocketed to the top of the state in reading. It finished No. 1 in third grade out of 3,155 schools. The rest of the top 10 was filled with schools from some of the state’s richest districts: Highland Park, Coppell, Lewisville, Plano and Round Rock.

Wesley’s fourth-graders finished fourth out of 3,160 schools, and its fifth-graders finished seventh out of 2,955 schools. All three groups of students saw major drops in scores the next year.

*At Osborne Elementary, scores jumped sharply between 2003 and 2004 in all grades. In 2003, the school’s third-graders finished in the bottom 15 percent of the state in reading. The next year, third-graders were in the top 5 percent of the state, ahead of wealthy suburban schools in Plano, Rockwall, and McKinney. The school made similarly unlikely jumps in other grades.

Julie Jaramillo, a teacher at Osborne until 2003, said she had little doubt other teachers were cheating. She taught fifth grade, but said the vast majority of her students were years behind -even though they’d had test success in earlier years. Some couldn’t spell their own name or do simple multiplication, she said.

Until its test-score jump in 2004, Osborne had been the weakest performer of the neighborhood’s elementaries. “One of our teachers said, ‘We can’t compete with cheating,'” said Ms. Jaramillo, who is Ms. Garner’s sister. “‘We can’t expect 10-year-olds to compete with the grownups who are taking the tests for them.'”

After the 2002-03 school year, more than a dozen experienced Osborne teachers were transferred or asked to leave the school, Ms. Jaramillo said. With a less experienced staff, Osborne’s scores suddenly took off. This spring, 97 percent of the school’s students passed the reading test, up from 66 percent meeting the same standard the previous year. The passing rate in math was 94 percent, up from 62 percent.

“I have always taught children below the poverty level,” she said. “I look over at Acres Homes and say, here is an opportunity. I’m not going to say they’re not teaching over there. But from someone who’s been in education for a while, I just don’t believe all of those children are passing the test.”

Cheating allegations at Wesley go back to 2003; Teacher had addressed HISD board meeting about problem

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2A

The fact there might be cheating at Wesley Elementary is not news to Houston officials.

In June 2003, former Wesley teacher Donna Garner stood before a meeting of the Houston school board and directly accused officials of cheating at Wesley. “I was instructed on how to cheat and that the expectation was that I would cheat,” she said, according to a copy of her speech.

District officials pledged an investigation. But it has taken the district a year and a half just to hire an outside law firm to do the investigating. The lengthy delays could make it harder to catch cheaters.

“When a great deal of time has passed between the incident and the investigation, people forget things,” said Suzanne Marchman, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “And what happened on test day is not as clear as it was eight months ago or a year ago.”

A Houston Independent School District investigator interviewed Ms. Garner in September 2003, according to TEA records. The Houston school board decided an independent panel should investigate the allegations “because of the strong political overtones of such an investigation,” according to an HISD summary of the case.

But the district’s testing coordinator apparently did not assemble the panel before his retirement in March 2004.

His replacement, David Guetzow, contacted TEA and outlined his plans. He wanted to assemble three to five retired school administrators to objectively see if there is cheating at Wesley, according to TEA records. He asked TEA to help by providing a facilitator familiar with cheating investigations who could assist the independent panel. Mr. Guetzow said the whole process would be completed in two to three weeks.

“The school board prefers to handle this case as objectively and as free of political or racial overtones as possible,” Mr. Guetzow wrote. “Of particular concern is the fact that the allegations describe a well organized and regimented cheating environment. If true, this casts suspicions on all schools in the Acres Homes Charter district because former district head Thaddeus Lott was credited with maintaining a very disciplined and controlled charter program. It would be difficult to understand how the alleged cheating techniques, if true, could have escaped his knowledge.”

TEA agreed to provide the facilitator, and agency officials told HISD to let the agency know when they needed the facilitator to be provided.

TEA is still waiting.

“We have not heard back from HISD since May,” Ms. Marchman said.

In an e-mail dated Nov. 8, HISD’s general counsel, Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, put some of the blame for the delay on TEA. She wrote: “Part of the process which HISD did begin several months ago, was to contact TEA and request that the agency conduct an investigation. TEA has not formally responded to the district. It appears, however, that TEA does not intend to assist HISD in this matter.”

Ms. Marchman said that is false.

“TEA was never asked to conduct an investigation,” she said. “I don’t think the agency would deny Houston’s request or any other district’s request. The agency offers whatever services it can.” TEA officials recently assisted Houston when the district investigated fraudulent dropout reporting in Houston high schools.

Terry Abbott, a district spokesperson, said Thursday that the district is aware of the “lack of progress” in the Wesley investigation. Last month, HISD appointed a law firm as independent counsel to investigate. In a statement, Houston Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra promised a “full and thorough investigation.”

W-H staffers receiving unearned pay; District trying to find who’s getting extra fees for former duties

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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A significant number of longtime Wilmer-Hutchins school district employees have been receiving payments they shouldn’t, according to district officials.

James Damm, the district’s interim superintendent, said he is moving to find out whose paychecks are larger than they should be and to ensure that the excess payments stop at the end of the school year.

“We want to pay a fair salary,” Mr. Damm said.

At issue are the stipends and supplemental pay that many employees receive for working longer schedules, taking on extra responsibilities or working in high-need areas.

The extra pay ranges from $150 a year – for a teacher who coordinates a school’s entries in state academic competitions – to $8,000 annually for school psychologists, who work four weeks longer each year than most school employees.

Mr. Damm said that some employees were receiving stipends for work they haven’t done in years. He said he did not know how many employees were receiving the unwarranted extra pay or how much money it cost the district annually.

When teachers were paid last month – almost two weeks later than originally planned because of the district’s cash-flow problems – their paychecks had a note attached: “Notice: All current supplemental pay and stipends are voided for the school year 2005-2006, pending board approval.”

Mr. Damm said all employees who are receiving legitimate stipends will continue to receive them. He said he hopes the district will even be able to increase the size of some.

In another development, the Texas Rangers have begun a criminal investigation into allegations of TAKS test cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins schools.

Last month, a data analysis by The Dallas Morning News found suspect patterns in the test scores of Wilmer and Alta Mesa elementary schools. On the high-stakes third-grade TAKS reading test, Wilmer went from being below the state average to having the state’s highest scale scores in just one year.

After The News’ analysis, the Texas Education Agency launched a full-scale cheating investigation at all of the district’s elementary schools. A report from that investigation is expected sometime within the next few weeks.

If the TEA finds evidence of cheating, it could penalize schools or the entire district by lowering their state ratings. The State Board for Educator Certification could also move to suspend or terminate the state teaching certificates of some school employees.

A criminal investigation could lead to much more severe penalties. Tampering with a state test document is a second-degree felony, punishable by a lengthy prison sentence.

Tools may stem cheating; Test scores, analysis available, but TEA doesn’t use information

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Last of two parts

Education researchers are clear: The vast majority of teachers are honest people and wouldn’t think of doctoring their students’ results on a standardized test.

But unfortunately, “the vast majority” doesn’t include everybody. In a high-pressure, high-stakes environment, some teachers are going to cross an ethical line.

Some experts say the Texas Education Agency isn’t doing enough to track them down. In some cases, the agency ignores information that could tip the agency off to improper behavior.

“It’s something we don’t want to admit,” said Tom Haladyna, a professor at Arizona State University who studies cheating. “Teachers are the most respected, most admired profession. But we badger them to get high test scores. And some feel the pressure to get test scores at any expense.”

A Dallas Morning News analysis of test scores found suspicious gaps and unlikely one-year swings in the performance of more than 200 Texas public schools.

Some of the schools may have legitimate explanations for their unusual score patterns. But in some cases, the gaps are so wide that experts say it’s difficult to imagine a cause other than cheating. One Houston school, Sanderson Elementary, finished in the bottom 2 percent of the state at fourth grade but had the best scores in Texas at fifth grade – with the majority of students suddenly getting perfect scores.

As a result of The News’ analysis, the TEA is now investigating allegations of cheating in three Texas school districts, including Dallas and Houston.

The newspaper’s analysis was performed entirely with publicly available test scores obtained from the TEA, using basic statistical techniques. The agency could perform a similar analysis on its own, but its leaders choose not to.

“Typically, school districts police themselves,” said Lisa Chandler, the TEA’s director of assessment. “We trust educators to educate our kids.”

TEA policy is to investigate allegations of cheating only when a district requests it or when it receives credible eyewitness evidence of cheating. Since most cheating occurs behind the closed doors of a testing classroom, that sort of firsthand evidence can be hard to find.

“Circumstantial evidence just doesn’t cut it,” TEA spokesperson Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.

Rapid improvement

Researchers differ on how common it is for teachers to improperly help students on standardized tests – either during the test or by altering test documents after the fact. Estimates range from 1 to 10 percent of classrooms.

Many researchers say that radical one-year turnarounds in test scores are very difficult to achieve. Reforms take time, particularly with children who have already had several years of sub-par school experiences.

“A kid can learn a large amount in a year in the right situation,” said John Fremer, former top test developer of the SAT and one of the most respected men in the testing industry. “But it’s hard for a whole class or a school to make as large a jump as an individual. When they make large jumps, you really have to ask yourself what’s going on.”

Ms. Chandler said she refuses to react cynically when TAKS scores improve by leaps and bounds.

“It may be an optimistic viewpoint, but it’s also a necessary viewpoint,” she said. “We can’t afford to lose five years in a child’s educational career. They have to have improvement. Can we expect quick turnarounds? We have to. We can’t let those kids not be successful.”

The Texas accountability system rewards schools and districts for high test scores. Principals and teachers often see their careers advance if their students score well. That can leave few incentives for educators to be vigorous about pursuing cheaters.

When The News informed Houston officials about the suspect scores at Sanderson, the district asked the TEA to begin a cheating investigation within 48 hours.

But Sanderson’s extraordinary fifth-grade math performance was not a secret. The school’s suspect scores are posted on the Houston ISD’s own Web site.

According to data on the site, not one of Sanderson’s fourth-graders got a perfect or near-perfect score on that grade’s math test. In contrast, 92 percent of the school’s fifth-graders did – the highest number in the state.

Looking at erasures

If the TEA wants to find cheaters, the agency already has a powerful tool available: the results of its annual erasure analysis.

Test-grading companies have equipment that can identify student answer sheets with unusually high numbers of answers erased and replaced. Researchers have developed formulas to determine when the number of erasures becomes so high that cheating is suspected. The equipment also can determine whether an unusual number of the erasures turned wrong answers into correct ones – another sign of potential cheating.

Texas performs an erasure analysis on every TAKS answer sheet in the state. But, under TEA policy, it does nothing with the information it produces.

If an analysis finds alarmingly high levels of erasures on a school’s answer sheets, the TEA doesn’t start an investigation – or even ask the school for an explanation.

Erasure information is only used if the agency receives a separate complaint alleging cheating, Ms. Chandler said. Then the agency may check the results of the erasure analysis to see if they support the allegations.

“It doesn’t necessarily show us the complete picture,” Ms. Chandler said when asked why the agency doesn’t examine the erasure data. She said that more conclusive evidence would be necessary to be certain cheating has occurred.

The TEA has used erasure analysis proactively only once before. In 1999, the agency found 33 schools in 11 districts that had high numbers of erasures for three consecutive years. The TEA demanded that each school district launch an internal cheating investigation.

One of the targets was Harrell Budd Elementary in Dallas, where the subsequent investigation found a sixth-grade teacher was helping students correct their answers during the test.

Another was Alta Mesa Elementary in the Wilmer-Hutchins district. When TEA officials sent monitors to oversee the testing process the next year, the school’s passing rate on the TAAS test dropped 40 percentage points.

Both Harrell Budd and Alta Mesa were found to have highly suspicious test scores in The News’ analysis. As a result, both are now back under state investigation.

Taking action

Ms. Chandler said the agency is willing to consider toughening its stance. It is considering setting erasure thresholds for schools that, if exceeded, would trigger investigations.

TEA officials also said that the agency is considering adding a check similar to The News’ analysis: searching for schools with wide swings in average scale scores.

“Stakes have gotten drastically higher in recent years,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “Testing has gotten more complicated. The potential for more problems to arise is there.”

It’s unclear whether the agency has the manpower that would be necessary to be more aggressive in investigating cheating. The TEA’s test-security department has only three employees. Ms. Chandler said that the staffing level is sufficient to investigate violations reported to the agency but that proactively looking for cheaters would “certainly take more personnel.”

Ms. Chandler said the agency has investigated about 1,700 complaints about testing procedure in the last two years. But that total includes a large number of procedural complaints about testing irregularities that do not affect scores, such as an educator mistakenly breaking the seal on a test booklet five minutes too soon. She said the district has launched on-site investigations in a “handful” of districts over that span.

Standard practice?

Experts say many states take an approach similar to Texas’ – investigating cheating only when specific evidence is reported. But as stakes continue to rise – both via the state ratings system and the federal No Child Left Behind system – that may change.

“You have to check to see the data is reliable,” said Dr. Fremer, who last year founded Caveon, a company that sells test-security services to states. “I believe that five years from now, you won’t find a state where these checks aren’t part of their standard practice. That will change.”

In Tennessee, for example, red flags go up when a school shows massive, unexpected improvement in scores. Huge swings can lead to an inquiry with the school district about possible improprieties.

“A huge gain by a teacher – that would attract attention,” said Ben Brown, the state’s executive director of evaluation and assessment.

But he acknowledged it is very difficult to turn circumstantial evidence – like score anomalies and erasure analysis – into something that can stand up in court.

“Cheating is a very severe charge,” he said. “We do everything we can to certainly protect and guarantee the rights of the professionals in the schools. But at the same time, it is our professional responsibility to make sure the assessment produces accurate results.”

This story is the second of two parts. For part one of this series, go online to DallasNews.com or read it in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News.

Cheating may be pervasive; Exclusive: TAKS surges raise questions about hundreds of schools

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

Page 1A

A Dallas Morning News data analysis has uncovered strong evidence of organized, educator-led cheating on the TAKS test in dozens of Texas schools – and suspicious scores in hundreds more.

The analysis found a poor urban school where third- and fifth-graders are among the state’s weakest readers – but the fourth-graders beat out the state’s most elite schools. That’s despite the fact that many of its students have trouble speaking English.

It found a desperately impoverished school where the fourth-graders have trouble adding and subtracting – but nearly all the fifth-graders got perfect scores on the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

And it found schools where in one year’s time – if the scores are to be believed – children devolved from top students to barely being able to read.

The News’ findings have led to cheating inquiries in three Texas school districts, including the state’s two largest, Dallas and Houston. One of the schools under investigation is a National Blue Ribbon School that a year ago was touted by federal officials as an example of top academic achievement.

“It’s very disturbing that this is happening,” Dallas schools spokesman Donald Claxton said of data showing unusual swings in test scores at Harrell Budd Elementary in southern Dallas. “There will be a broad-scoped, complete investigation. If there’s cheating going on, we want to stop it.”

The investigation raises serious questions about the ability of the state’s accountability system to reliably measure how schools are performing. The Texas system provided the model for No Child Left Behind, the federal law that measures the quality of all U.S. public schools and punishes those that don’t meet standards.

“My sense is that we’re seeing a change in culture,” said Jim Impara, a former state assessment director in Florida and Oregon. “When you have a system where test scores have real impact on teachers’ lives, you’re more likely to see teachers willing to cheat.”

Houston example

The News’ analysis is based on examining scale scores – the little-known numbers behind the passing rates that typically get public attention. The investigation searched for schools with unusual gaps in performance between grades or subjects. Research has shown that schools that are weak in one subject or one grade are typically weak in others.

Take Sanderson Elementary, a school in a poor Houston area.

In 2003, after years of mediocre performance, it reached what has traditionally been the pinnacle for American schools: The U.S. Department of Education named Sanderson a Blue Ribbon School because of rapid improvement in its test scores.

But The News’ analysis raises questions about the validity of Sanderson’s TAKS performance, particularly in fifth-grade math.

Sanderson’s fourth-graders scored extremely poorly on the math TAKS test this year. Their average scale score was so low that it ranked Sanderson in the bottom 2 percent of the state: No. 3,173 out of 3,227 schools.

That’s roughly what might be expected from a school where almost 98 percent of the student body is poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunches. Hundreds of research studies have found that student poverty is the single most important factor in student academic achievement.

But Sanderson’s fifth-graders had astonishing success on the math test. They had the highest scale scores of any school in Texas, beating every magnet school, every wealthy suburban school and every high-performing school in the state.

Sanderson didn’t just finish No. 1. No other school in the state was even close. In scale-score points, the distance between Sanderson and the No. 2 school was as large as the gap between No. 2 and No. 116. More than 90 percent of Sanderson’s fifth-graders got perfect or near-perfect scores.

‘Educational steroids’

Tom Haladyna, a professor at Arizona State University who studies cheating, said that level of improvement between grades is extremely unusual. He compared it to a weekend duffer beating Tiger Woods by 10 strokes, or a scrub softball player hitting 80 home runs in the major leagues: theoretically conceivable but realistically impossible.

“They’re using educational steroids,” he said.

Those “steroids” were apparently used only on the TAKS test. Just eight weeks before Sanderson fifth-graders took the TAKS, they took a different standardized test, the Stanford Achievement Test. They didn’t fare well, finishing below the national average.

Sanderson’s principal, James Metoyer, directed all questions about scores to district officials. Houston Superintendent Abe Saavedra issued a written statement to The News.

“At HISD, our credibility and integrity must remain absolutely beyond question,” Dr. Saavedra wrote last week. “For that reason, I have asked for a full and thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the math scores of this one group of fifth graders.”

Dr. Saavedra said the district had reassigned two Sanderson teachers to “other duties” while the district and the state investigate the school’s test scores. He also said Mr. Metoyer, the principal, had asked to be reassigned “in order to protect the credibility and the integrity of this investigation.”

Dallas school officials reacted similarly when The News informed them last week of problems with 2004 test scores at Harrell Budd Elementary.

At Budd, the questions involve the fourth grade, where results in both reading and math were questionable. In the third grade, Budd’s students finished in the bottom 4 percent of the state in reading. Not unusual, considering nearly 95 percent of its students are poor and more than 40 percent have limited English skills.

But Budd’s fourth-graders were worldbeaters. In reading, they had the second-highest scores in the state, beating schools in Highland Park, Plano and every other high-wealth district. The only school to finish ahead of them was a Houston magnet school for gifted children. Budd’s fourth-graders fared almost as well in math, ranking in the top 2 percent of Texas.

After The News reported its findings to district officials, the district launched a cheating investigation at Budd. “We’ll find out how extensive the problems are,” said Mr. Claxton, the district spokesman. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of it.”

More than 200 schools

The score swings at Sanderson and Budd were the two most extreme of any of the 7,700 Texas schools whose scores The News analyzed. But they weren’t the only ones.

More than 200 schools had large, unexplained score gaps between grades or between tests. In statisticians’ lingo, these schools had at least one average scale score that was more than three standard deviations away from what would be predicted based on their scores in other grades or on other tests.

In some cases, there may be legitimate explanations for such gaps. School attendance boundaries could have changed dramatically. Or a new public housing development might have radically changed the composition of a school’s student body.

But researchers said that large differences between tests are generally signs of something amiss.

“If you see big swings in those numbers, I think we should raise our eyebrows and say this is very, very unusual,” Dr. Haladyna said.

The schools most likely to make the list are high-poverty, urban schools, which often feel the strongest pressure to raise scores.

Houston had the most schools with large gaps: 25 out of the district’s 307 schools. Dallas had 21, out of 219 total. Fort Worth had six schools on the list, and no other Texas district had more than three.

Using a stricter standard – four standard deviations from predictions – 41 schools have suspect scores.

The most common pattern involved the third-grade reading TAKS test. Students generally must pass the test to be promoted to fourth grade. That puts more pressure on teachers.

Some examples:

*Houston’s Gallegos Elementary. In 2003, Gallegos’ third-graders finished in the bottom 8 percent of the state. In 2004, third-graders zoomed up to the top 2 percent. But the school’s reading scores in other grades remained weak.

*Dallas’ Margaret Henderson Elementary, one of Texas’ worst schools. It was one of only two North Texas schools to earn the state’s “low performing” label from 2001 to 2003. But in 2004, Henderson’s third-graders leapt to the state’s 73rd percentile in reading. Fourth- and fifth-graders remained in the bottom 5 percent of the state.

Wilmer school

The News began its data analysis in October, when questions were raised about the validity of test scores in the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

The analysis found strong evidence of cheating at Wilmer Elementary, a long-underachieving school that rocketed to the best third-grade reading scores in the state. Since the analysis was published, several teachers and students have supported the allegations of TAKS cheating, and the Texas Education Agency has launched an investigation.

In Brownsville, Garza Elementary has scoring patterns similar to Wilmer’s. Its fourth- and fifth-graders did poorly on the state’s English-language reading test in 2004. Fourth-graders finished in the bottom 11 percent of the state. Fifth-graders were worse: in the bottom 4 percent, 3,336th out of 3,453 schools statewide.

Like Wilmer, Garza teaches the very poor; only three of its 810 students did not qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. More than three-quarters of its students are considered “limited English proficient” under state definitions.

And, like Wilmer, Garza’s students finished in the state’s top 2 percent on the third-grade reading test. Almost two-thirds of its students got perfect or near-perfect scores.

Even Brownsville’s superintendent thought Garza’s third-grade scores were unusual. “I thought, ‘That’s too good,'” Michael Zolkowski said.

TEA officials are investigating. But district officials have said the inquiry is limited to questions about one or two students’ answer sheets, which would not explain the massive score swing.

Researchers differ on how common it is for teachers to cheat. But most agree it is more common than officials like to acknowledge.

John Fremer, who led the team that developed the new version of the SAT, estimates that between 1 and 2 percent of teachers cheat on their students’ behalf on standardized tests. Because those classrooms are spread out among schools, he estimates cheating skews the scores of 3 to 5 percent of schools.

A recent Harvard study of testing in Chicago schools found organized, educator-led cheating in about 4 percent of classrooms, 6 percent when schools with low scores faced consequences.

In an anonymous survey of Arizona teachers by Dr. Haladyna, 11 percent said they improperly helped students on 1991 state tests.

Dr. Impara said that when he started in the testing business in the 1960s, cheating on standardized tests was barely a concern.

“There were almost no stakes attached,” said Dr. Impara, who with Dr. Fremer has formed a private test-security company. “The test was intended to provide information on student performance.”

Changes in Texas

That started to change in Texas in the early 1990s, with the birth of the state’s accountability system. School passing rates were made public and broadcast widely. Schools earned ratings based on their passing rates. The idea: shaming low-performing schools publicly would encourage them to get their ratings up.

Now, in many districts, scores are the key factor in evaluating the performance of superintendents, principals and teachers.

Dr. Haladyna said schools should be able to explain wide gaps in scores if they are not cheating.

“Every time you see one of these schools,” he said, “you have the right to ask the question, ‘How did you do it?’ There has to be a program, a method that’s producing these results. ‘We just tried harder’ is not an acceptable answer.”

“We just worked real hard” was the explanation given by Geraldine Hobson, principal of Wilmer Elementary, when she was asked last month about Wilmer’s astounding third-grade scores. She resigned less than two weeks later.

The News’ method of looking for unusual test scores does not catch all cheaters. It does not, for instance, detect schools that cheat consistently across multiple grades and multiple subjects.

It also doesn’t catch more subtle cheaters. A teacher who gives students a few correct answers on test day could raise her students’ scores enough for them to pass, but not enough for a huge score increase that might draw attention.

“You’re catching the dumb cheaters,” Dr. Haladyna said of the analysis. “The smart cheaters you’re not going to be able to detect.”

Tomorrow: How TEA policies let teachers get away with cheating.

Wilmer-Hutchins board votes to close 3 schools; Police Department also gets ax as district tries to rein in costs

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Wilmer-Hutchins district will be three schools smaller when classes start again next month.

The district’s school board voted, 5-2, Monday night to close Hutchins Elementary, A.L. Morney Learning Center and the performing arts magnet high school.

It also voted to eliminate the district’s Police Department and fire its chief, Cedric Davis – a man some consider partially responsible for exposing many of the district’s problems.

Officials said both moves were a necessary part of massive cost-cutting that the troubled district needs.

“This is a very difficult recommendation to make,” interim Superintendent James Damm said of the school closings. “But we must lower costs.”

Each of the three schools enrolls fewer than 100 students. The performing arts high school has only 55. Running the small schools has proved inefficient, and Mr. Damm said the expenses are unsustainable while the district tries to recover from a fund balance deficit of $3 million.

Several community members objected to the closings, saying students should be able to continue in their current academic programs.

“The children really like it down there,” resident Cynthia Fowler said of Hutchins Elementary, where she said she was considering sending her child. “The teachers out there are really teaching the students.”

Several board members asked Mr. Damm whether alternatives were possible: keeping the schools open through the end of the school year, or moving the performing arts program to the main high school campus.

“I have no problem closing the building,” board member Lamar Walton said. “But the program means so much.”

But Mr. Damm resisted changes, saying the district spends about $17,000 per student at the performing arts school.

“It would be a serious setback to our financial recovery plan,” he said.

In the end, board members Debra Harwell and Dortha Thomas were the only two to oppose the move. If the board had voted against the closings, the state management team overseeing Wilmer-Hutchins could have overturned the decision.

Layoffs, savings

No teachers will lose their jobs as a result of the closings, Mr. Damm said. Some support personnel and administrators will be laid off.

The closings will save the district more than $400,000. Once the closings take effect, Wilmer-Hutchins’ staff will be reduced to 338 people. At the start of the school year, before a series of layoffs, the district had 406 employees.

Students of the closed elementary schools will be shifted to C.S. Winn and Wilmer elementary schools. The performing arts students will move to Wilmer Hutchins High.

Mr. Damm said some high school students would be hurt by the transfers because the performing arts high school runs on a different kind of block schedule than Wilmer Hutchins High.

He said administrators would work with students so they can earn the credits they need.

The district’s unusual enrollment pattern is largely the result of parents’ decision to abandon Wilmer-Hutchins, which has ranked among the state’s worst for decades. Ten year ago, Wilmer-Hutchins enrolled more than 4,000 students. Now it enrolls 2,900, making it the only area district to have lost enrollment over that span.

Many of the students have fled to the Dallas ISD or to charter schools. That has left all the district schools smaller, but the impact has been strongest on the elementary schools – which typically have smaller enrollment totals in any district.

The board’s vote to eliminate the four-person Police Department was unanimous. The board had voted to eliminate the department in June, but Chief Davis and the department’s other employees sued, saying they were being targeted as whistleblowers.

This spring, Chief Davis turned over evidence to the Dallas County district attorney’s office regarding allegations of corruption among district administrators. That investigation has since spiraled outward, leading indirectly to the state’s takeover of the district and criminal investigations by the FBI, the Texas Rangers and several other law-enforcement agencies.

State District Judge Charles Stokes granted a temporary injunction requiring the district to rehire Chief Davis and the other employees. But the judge reversed course in September.

Chief Davis said the move was expected, and he said he would consider his legal options. “It’s ‘slay the messenger,'” he said.

Michelle Willhelm, one of the district’s two state managers, said: “It’s very unfortunate that nonessential personnel must be released, but the budget must be balanced.”

As if to emphasize the point, district officials chose Monday night to make a state-mandated presentation on the district’s poor financial shape.

Wilmer-Hutchins was one of a few districts statewide to receive failing marks in the state’s financial rating system, and the Texas Education Agency requires such low-performing school districts to inform the public of their standing.

Mr. Damm said he expects the school district to receive another poor rating next year because the ratings are based on year-old data.

“It will be two years before we can hopefully bring you a positive report,” he said.

Searching for a bank

Normally the district’s depository bank would be assisting the district through its financial difficulties. But Wells Fargo told Wilmer-Hutchins last month that it no longer wanted to handle the district’s money.

The district’s financial staff asked for bids for a replacement. But no banks have been willing to offer their services, forcing the district to extend its deadline for bidders.

“We’re finding this to be quite challenging,” said Bill Goodman, the district’s business director.

Fans ensure slain rocker will always be with them

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

ARLINGTON – Jimmy Fisher was a 13-year-old kid when he heard Pantera’s buzz saw roar for the first time.

“It was chaotic but soothing,” he said Saturday night, scanning the walls of an Arlington tattoo parlor for interesting designs. “I got hooked for life.”

So when former Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was shot dead on an Ohio stage Wednesday night, Jimmy knew he had to mark the passing with needles and flesh.

“Dimebag Darrell is the reason I picked up an electric guitar,” he said. “I can’t even tell you what a friendly, nice guy he was.”

The strip-mall tattoo parlor, Only Forever Tattoo, offered a special Saturday night for fans like Jimmy: A small Dimebag or Pantera tattoo, normally $50, could be had for a dime. He was first in line.

He’d heard about the shooting only hours after it happened, via a friend’s phone call. “I started crying, dude,” he said. “I didn’t know how to take it. It put me in a state of shock.”

Jimmy wanted a circular “CFH” on his right calf. Pantera’s 1990 album “Cowboys From Hell” was the band’s debut on the national stage, and the initials have been a symbol of the band ever since.

The tattoo parlor’s 10-cent special could have bought him a silver dollar-size “CFH,” but Jimmy ponied up $50 for a version about 4 inches across. “I don’t do small tattoos,” said the man, whose opposite shin features a pink skull engulfed in green flames.

Rob Clark, the tattoo artist, shaved a swath of Jimmy’s leg hair and dipped his needle into a dime-sized thimble of black ink. “He was a cool guy, nice guy,” Rob remembered of Dimebag, a former customer. “Always bought me drinks.”

Jimmy remembered going to a party at the guitarist’s house when he was 16. He didn’t think his friends would believe he’d really been there, so he sneaked into his hero’s bathroom and smuggled out a copy of Entertainment Weekly with Darrell Abbott’s name on the mailing label. “I’ve still got it,” he said. “Now I’ve got to get a glass case to put it in.”

Jimmy, 24, is assembling his own band now. He won’t bother coming up with a name until he can find a bass player. But he said a Pantera cover will definitely figure into their set list.

Wilmer-Hutchins district plans to close 3 campuses to cut costs; Schools chief says arts magnet, elementary, learning center to shut

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Wilmer-Hutchins officials plan to shut down three of the district’s eight schools as part of an attempt to cut costs and move the district out of its financial emergency.

“In good times, I’m not sure I could support these schools,” interim Superintendent James Damm said at Monday’s board meeting. “In the times we find ourselves in, I know we can’t support them.”

He is recommending closing Hutchins Elementary, A.L. Morney Learning Center and the district’s performing-arts magnet high school. Each enrolls fewer than 100 students.

The board will take action on the recommendation at its meeting next Monday.

According to a district staffing analysis prepared last month, Hutchins had 83 students, Morney had 82 and the performing-arts high school had 55. Because of their small size, it is more difficult for the district to maintain reasonable staffing there. On the three campuses, the student-teacher ratio is 10 to 1. In the district’s other schools, the ratio is 15.6 to 1.

The district’s enrollment has dropped slowly but steadily over the last several years. It now enrolls about 2,900 students, down from 3,651 in 1999.

The performing-arts high school recently has been the district’s most controversial. About half its few students reside outside the district and pay tuition to attend. But it costs the district about $10,000 per student to run the school, since it must employ teachers in the traditional academic disciplines as well as its arts programs.

“Only a large urban district like Dallas can afford the luxury of these magnet schools,” Mr. Damm said, referring to Dallas’ noted Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Mr. Damm said that if the board approves the closures next week, students from the performing-arts school would be transferred to Wilmer-Hutchins High School. The elementary students would be moved to C.S. Winn Elementary, Wilmer Elementary or both.

Last month, Mr. Damm cited the performing-arts school as a source of a potential cost savings. But at the time, he expressed hesitation about changing the school’s status in the middle of the year. On Monday, he said he wants the school closed after semester exams later this month.

Mr. Damm said the closings would save the district more than $400,000. The district is in a severe financial crisis, having run short of money to pay teachers twice this fall.

For Hutchins Elementary students, a move would mean attending classes in a third location this school year. When Wilmer-Hutchins High was considered unusable in August – because of poorly repaired summer storm damage – the high school students took over Hutchins for the first few weeks of school. The elementary students moved to a building down the street.

Column: Walking out of class, into civil rights lore

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Diana Aguilera just wanted to be a cheerleader. Not such an unusual hope for a 14-year-old girl, even in the turbulent spring of 1969.

But Diana’s skin was brown, and the white folks who ran Crystal City High School would allow only one Hispanic on the cheerleading squad at a time. Never mind that Crystal City’s student body was almost 90 percent Mexican-American.

It’s strange to think that it took a dispute over cheerleaders to trigger one of the pivotal moments in Hispanic civil rights history. But on top of all the other indignities the students of Crystal City faced – the taunting, the paddlings, the petty injustices – something was destined to push them into action.

That action was a massive student strike that demanded equity and dignity for Mexican-American students in this small town 35 miles north of the Rio Grande.

“I lost a lot of friends over it,” Ms. Aguilera says today. “When we walked out, one of my best friends, a white girl, came up to me and said, ‘How could you do this? You’re a good Mexican!'”

This year, educators across America celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education – the landmark Supreme Court case that declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional. But this week marks the 35th anniversary of arguably the most important moment in the parallel struggles of Hispanics in education. And the only commemoration it will receive will be a brief school assembly in a small South Texas town.

“Crystal City really broke down the barriers for Mexican-Americans,” said Armando Trujillo, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of one of several books on the student revolt. “It opened up the school system to them.”

In the 1960s, the white minority that had long controlled Crystal City was losing its grip on power. A group of young Chicano activists wanted to address a series of problems, and the local schools seemed a good place to start to politicize the community.

Some of the students’ concerns may seem small today. But they were part of a larger pattern.

Each year, senior popularity awards were bestowed by a vote of the white faculty, not the student body – which meant the “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Most Handsome” and so forth were whites every year. Faculty also picked members of the National Honor Society without regard to grades – which meant more white faces.

The high school had a rule saying the homecoming queen each year had to be the daughter of a Crystal City High graduate – immediately disqualifying most Mexican-American students from consideration.

The school cafeteria even banned Mexican food. If students brought tacos from home for lunch, they had to eat them off-campus.

“The teachers told us we were stupid and ignorant because we were Mexican,” said Jose Angel Gutierrez, a 1962 Crystal City graduate. “They said, ‘We don’t have time for you. You’re never going to amount to anything.'”

Severita Lara, one of the leaders of the student movement, had been caught speaking Spanish on school property when she was in eighth grade. Standard punishment was three licks of the paddle or three days’ suspension. Severita got the licks.

“My dad was very, very upset,” she said. “He went to the principal and said, ‘You can hit my daughter if she talks back, or if she’s rude. But you can never hit her again for speaking Spanish. That’s my language, and it’s a beautiful language.'”

Going on strike

In the fall of 1969, students assembled a list of demands for school leaders: More Mexican-American history in the schools, bilingual education, smaller class sizes, no more requiring Mexican students to do janitorial work around the school.

And no more race quotas for the cheerleaders.

Diana and Severita were two of the three main student leaders. Mr. Gutierrez – a twenty-something activist with what some whites considered a radical vision of Chicano power – was the group’s mentor and organizer.

The administration resisted, and on Dec. 9, students went on strike. At first, about 200 walked out of classes. But in the coming weeks, the movement spread – first to middle school, then the elementaries. Soon, 1,700 of the district’s 2,300 students were officially on strike.

Picket lines formed in front of schools. The three student leaders went to Washington to ask the Justice Department to intervene. (“I had never been on an elevator before,” Severita remembers.)

Tensions grew as police arrested protesters and the hate mail piled up. “I hope someone will get our people to tar and feather you good-for-nothing cheaters and take you to Russia where you belong,” said one letter Ms. Aguilera now keeps in a scrapbook. “I am ready to pitch you to the wolves.”

Federal officials sent a negotiation team to settle things down. By then, the Crystal City walkout was getting national media attention. The next month, school officials finally gave in to nearly all of the students’ demands.

“I knew we were doing something special,” Ms. Aguilera remembers today. “We felt we had nothing to lose.”

Inspiring change

The victory in Crystal City led Hispanics elsewhere to seek similar reforms. Chicano activists and scholars consider the walkout to be one of the signal events of the Hispanic civil rights history.

A few days after school officials gave up, Mr. Gutierrez called a meeting of activists in Crystal City and formed La Raza Unida, a political party aimed at increasing Hispanic power. It would run candidates for statewide office through the 1970s and nearly played spoiler for Democratic candidates on several occasions. Mr. Gutierrez was elected school board president and, later, county judge.

So why is Crystal City a footnote and not celebrated like Brown vs. Board? There are some obvious reasons. Brown single-handedly changed the law for an entire nation. Crystal City inspired changes elsewhere, but its direct impact was strictly local.

And some in South Texas don’t view the late ’60s as Crystal City’s finest hour. They think of the walkout – and some of La Raza Unida’s actions after taking power – as too extreme. Some party members advocated more radical measures, like declaring an independent Chicano nation.

“The walkout was the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr. Trujillo, the UTSA professor.

“Now there’s almost a negative notoriety that it was too radical. Instead of saying, ‘Wow, it really helped us overcome all these problems,’ people are saying, ‘We’re past that, we’re beyond that. We want to see ourselves just as regular folks now.'”

Making adjustments

The more radical elements of Crystal City’s curriculum have long been stripped away. The district used to offer bilingual classes all the way to high school; now they stop at third grade. A beloved cultural studies class that focused on Mexican-American history was lost years ago.

“Now what they teach in Beaumont or Texarkana or Crystal City is all basically the same,” said Alberto Gonzales, a sophomore during the walkout and now Crystal City’s superintendent. “Our focus is not on a political agenda now. It’s on getting children ready for higher education.”

But the kids at Crystal City High School in 1969 were changed by the experience. Ms. Lara went on to become a science teacher – in part to spite the white school counselor who had prevented her from taking a chemistry class because she wasn’t “college material.” She’s now Crystal City High’s librarian.

(After her dad confronted the principal about being paddled for speaking Spanish, the school came up with a new punishment: If young Severita was caught speaking Spanish, she was sent to the library instead. “I guess that’s why I always loved the library,” she says now.)

Mr. Gutierrez went on to other political roles and is now a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “People don’t want to talk about our history,” he said. “Now people are understanding that we deserve to be powerful.”

Ms. Aguilera’s family rose to political prominence after the revolt – her mother became mayor, her father became sheriff, and her brother became the local district attorney. She works for the Dallas school district, as an investigator in its human resources department. And thanks to the revolt she helped lead, she ended up a cheerleader after all.