By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
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.
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.
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.
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.”