W-H pay lapses detailed; Report: At least 1 former employee kept getting money

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Long after leaving the district, at least one former Wilmer-Hutchins employee stayed on the payroll, according to a state management team report.

The report also states that the district has had problems maintaining proper controls in its human resources and payroll departments, and that has sometimes led to human resources director Lew Blackburn “inappropriately interfering” with how some teachers are paid.

“We’re trying to put in place the internal controls we need,” said Michelle Willhelm, one of the two state-appointed managers who now oversee Wilmer-Hutchins.

The problems are outlined in a management team report submitted to Texas Education Agency officials last week. The report summarizes a number of problems state managers have found with the way the district operates.

Several of the problems center on the district’s staffing systems. Those responsibilities fall under Dr. Blackburn, who is also a Dallas school board member.

“On at least one occasion, the HR Executive Director has failed to notify the payroll office of a termination of employment, resulting in the continuation of automatic direct deposit payments to a former employee,” the report says.

The report gives no details about the former employee who received the money. Ms. Willhelm said that she did not remember specifics but that she thought the employee remained on the district’s payroll for months after ceasing to work for the district.

Dr. Blackburn could not be reached for comment. But Ms. Willhelm said Dr. Blackburn told her that the reason he didn’t have the employee removed from the payroll was forgetfulness. “It just got by him,” she said.

Ms. Willhelm said she did not have any reason to believe there was anything intentionally improper about Dr. Blackburn’s actions.

“We’ve dealt with these concerns,” interim Superintendent James Damm said. “Everyone needs to do their own function so the possibility of collusion is done away with.”

Ms. Willhelm said she did not know whether the former employee in question was Gerald Henderson, the district’s former maintenance director. Mr. Henderson stopped working for the district in 2002, but a portion of his salary remained in the district budget through last year – despite Mr. Henderson’s claims that he was not receiving any of the money.

It was a stack of documents relating to Mr. Henderson that former Wilmer-Hutchins Superintendent Charles Matthews allegedly ordered a district employee to destroy in September. Dr. Matthews was indicted on felony document tampering charges in November.

The report also criticizes Dr. Blackburn for “inappropriately interfering with payroll functions,” including reviewing all school authorizations to use substitute teachers before allowing the payroll department to issue paychecks. As a result of Dr. Blackburn’s interference, Ms. Willhelm said, some substitute teachers were not paid on time.

“He was trying to manage by interfering with the system,” Ms. Willhelm said, adding that Dr. Blackburn was trying to cut spending by avoiding improper use of substitutes.

Dr. Blackburn also is criticized in the report for not responding to open-records requests in a timely manner. Some citizens and journalists have complained about district records not being turned over under the requirements of state law. As a result of the complaints, responsibility for open-records requests has been removed from Dr. Blackburn and passed to the superintendent’s office.

In other Wilmer-Hutchins news, state District Judge Kent Sims instructed attorneys in a case questioning the residency of a Wilmer-Hutchins school board member to submit briefs by mid-February.

Board member Vornadette “Sha Sha” Brewer was among those testifying in the case Thursday. Ms. Brewer is school board President Luther Edwards’ sister-in-law, and plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege she does not live within the school district’s boundaries.

State plans TAKS cheating inquiry; TEA also will hire expert to help prevent, detect deceit

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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AUSTIN – The Texas Education Agency will begin analyzing test scores for unusual gaps and swings, modeling the effort on a Dallas Morning News investigation that found suspect scores at nearly 400 Texas schools.

The state’s education commissioner, Shirley Neeley, also announced Monday that the agency will hire an outside testing expert to improve procedures for preventing and detecting cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

“The whole situation is so embarrassing,” Dr. Neeley said at an Austin news conference called to address the News investigation. “The vast, vast majority of teachers are professionals who would never think of doing anything like this.”

The News analysis looked for schools with radical swings in student test performance – for example, schools where students performed among the state’s worst one year and at the top of the state the next. It found nearly 400 schools where score swings were at levels educational researchers considered suspicious.

As a result of the News’ analysis, cheating investigations are under way in most of the state’s large urban school districts, including Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. Last week, Houston and Dallas announced plans to send hundreds of test monitors to watch over suspect schools as they administer state tests this spring. Houston has also created a district department to investigate cheating allegations.

Dr. Neeley said the agency had not yet decided exactly how it would analyze test scores to search for cheaters. The News methodology examined the average scale scores of students in each grade at every school. TEA officials have access to more detailed data on individual students, which could allow for more precise detection of unusual gains.

Joining the commissioner at Monday’s news conference were the school superintendents of Houston and Dallas, the head of the state’s teacher certification board and representatives of every major education association in the state – including groups representing teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members.

Dr. Neeley defended the state’s policies for policing cheating but acknowledged that the News analysis raised “serious questions.”

“We will have zero tolerance for cheating,” Dr. Neeley said.

State officials said they have always been aggressive in going after cheaters but acknowledged that only two teachers have lost their licenses because of cheating in the last 10 years.

Dr. Neeley said she is willing to do “whatever it takes” to ensure a secure testing system but called Texas’ system state of the art. She said the agency hoped to have the outside expert in place within the next few weeks.

One change the agency will consider is using data on erased answers on TAKS tests. During the grading process, TEA obtains data on Texas schools that have unusually high numbers of erasures on their answer sheets. But the agency chooses not to examine the data unless someone comes forward with concrete evidence of cheating.

TEA also will create a tracking system for cheating allegations that will do a better job of following up on complaints, Dr. Neeley said. She also said the agency will begin informing Texas districts if unusual score swings are detected on recent TAKS tests.

The agency will be asking the Legislature for more funds so it can add staff to investigate cheating, Dr. Neeley said.

But legislative leaders signaled that the agency could be in for tough questioning when the session opens today.

“This is no different than the Enron scandal in our public schools,” said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, an Arlington Republican and chairman of the House Public Education Committee. “TEA is not doing a good enough job.”

Mr. Grusendorf said cheating is certain to come up in hearings on TEA’s sunset process – the regular legislative approval all state agencies must go through periodically to continue functioning. TEA is up for sunset approval this year.

“We need to clean that up and make sure that kind of thing does not happen,” Mr. Grusendorf said. “They are the agency responsible for overseeing state tests statewide. They need to hold school districts accountable.”

Other legislators said they hope TEA can improve its cheating policing without lawmakers getting involved.

“TEA has the responsibility to maintain the integrity of the testing system,” Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said. “It’s their job already. I don’t know what else the Legislature can do.”

Mr. Hochberg said educator cheating is in some ways a natural response to the pressures officials put on schools to raise scores.

“It’s surprising to me that there isn’t even more cheating going on,” he said.

DISD probing TAKS scores; FW also joins Houston in investigating schools that might have cheated

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Dallas and Fort Worth school districts are investigating dozens of their schools for possible cheating on the TAKS test.

The schools were identified by a Dallas Morning News investigation that found suspect scores at nearly 400 schools statewide – schools where test scores swung unexpectedly from poor to stellar.

“Cheating will not be tolerated,” Dallas interim Superintendent Larry Groppel said in a statement. “We will thoroughly examine the scope of potential past improprieties.”

Dallas is examining scores at 35 schools across the district. The district requested access to The News’ findings Friday, more than three weeks after the newspaper first reported that dozens of Dallas schools were suspect.

Fort Worth is looking into scores at eight of its schools identified by The News.

“This is serious business,” interim Superintendent Joe Ross said. “We’ve got to look into it, no ifs, ands or buts.”

The districts’ moves came a day after the Houston school district announced a series of changes to prevent teachers from cheating on the TAKS, also prompted by the News investigation. Houston’s changes include sending monitors to classrooms on test day – a move Dallas says it will match – and creating an investigative department.

Dallas officials began investigating one school, Harrell Budd Elementary in east Oak Cliff, last month after The News found it had one of the most suspicious scoring patterns in the state.

Last year, Budd’s third-graders finished in the bottom 4 percent of the state in reading, but its fourth-graders had the second-highest scores of more than 3,000 Texas schools. The only school to top it was a Houston magnet school for gifted children. That’s despite the fact that 40 percent of Budd’s student body has trouble speaking English.

But the district did not look into the other schools until after Houston ISD announced it was examining scores at all the district’s schools and investigating more than 20 schools.

One of the mechanisms that Dallas officials will use in their investigations is comparing TAKS scores with performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, another test that Dallas students take.

Donald Claxton, DISD spokesman, said the district has established that the high-scoring students at Harrell Budd didn’t fare nearly as well on the lower-stakes Iowa Test. He said the Budd investigation should be concluded by the end of January.

Looking forward, Dallas officials said they would place monitors into many of the district’s schools on TAKS testing days this spring. Mr. Claxton said the number of monitors was secret – “We want to keep the element of surprise” – but that it would probably be between 100 and 200.

Houston officials have said they will use between 300 and 600 monitors in their district, which is about 30 percent larger than Dallas.

In addition, Mr. Claxton said the district will provide additional training for teachers.

Mr. Ross, the Fort Worth superintendent, said he had examined The News’ findings and said a district inquiry was necessary.

Fort Worth’s most unusual scores were at A.M. Pate Elementary, where last spring’s fifth-grade scores spiked unexpectedly from the year before. In 2004, those students finished in the top 5 percent of Texas. The year before, when those same students were fourth-graders, they finished in the bottom 3 percent of the state.

“I don’t want to say anything to cast doubts on anyone at this point in time,” Mr. Ross said of the schools under scrutiny, “because there may be a logical reason for the scores. But statistically it looks odd.”

Both Dallas and Fort Worth officials said they plan to start performing the sort of statistical analysis The News did each year so officials can detect suspect schools without help from the media. So did an official in the Austin school district, where seven schools had statistically unusual swings in test scores.

“We definitely want to go ahead and start doing something like this on our own,” said Holly Williams, director of the district’s department of program evaluation. “We wish we had thought of it.”

The Texas Education Agency has the ability to perform a similar analysis on all Texas schools, including those in smaller districts that may not have the technical capacity to do it on their own.

But officials choose not to, saying that unexplainable swings in scores are only circumstantial evidence and that the agency does not have the staff to duplicate The News’ work. State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley and other state officials are holding a news conference Monday to address the Texas Education Agency’s reaction to the newspaper’s findings.

Houston district says monitors will police TAKS testing; Move follows evidence that educators helped students cheat

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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HOUSTON – Houston school officials will unleash an army of test monitors to make sure their teachers and principals aren’t helping students cheat on the TAKS test, the district’s superintendent said Thursday.

The move is a response to a Dallas Morning News investigation that found strong evidence that educators in Houston and elsewhere were giving students answers or altering test documents to improve student scores.

“The most important thing we have as a school system is our integrity,” Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said.

The district will also create a department, the Office of the Inspector General, to do a better job detecting and pursuing educators who cheat.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Independent School District is considering creating its own team of monitors who would watch for TAKS cheating by test administrators.

Last month, The News’ statistical analysis of scores on the TAKS tests found 25 Houston schools with highly suspect performance – schools where student scores swung wildly or improved by improbable amounts in one year. Since then, The News has analyzed additional test data from 2003 and found more suspect schools, bringing the total to 46.

In all, the analysis has found nearly 400 Texas schools with suspicious scores. Texas has about 7,700 public schools.

Dr. Saavedra said Houston ISD has duplicated the newspaper’s research and is investigating dozens of its schools for possible cheating.

“It is not acceptable to our board or to me or to anyone here that HISD should have to rely on the media to point out anomalies in test scores,” Dr. Saavedra said. “That’s our job.”

At the morning announcement – which Dr. Saavedra called “one of the most important press conferences our district will ever have” – he would not say how many of Houston’s 300 schools the district is currently investigating. He did say the number was more than a dozen but less than 50.

‘Hard to explain’

Dr. Saavedra said that in each of those schools, students had shown “growth so excessive that it’s hard to explain.” He would not say whether he believed teachers in the schools were cheating but called the test data he had seen “highly suspicious.”

Many of the schools under investigation are among the state’s most lauded. Sanderson Elementary is a National Blue Ribbon campus where fifth-graders last year had the best scores in the state, beating nearly 3,000 other schools. But fourth-graders finished in the bottom 2 percent of the state in the same subject, math.

For years, Wesley Elementary has been lauded by President Bush and many conservative education activists as a model for urban schools nationwide. But concerns about its test scores have led Houston officials to hire an outside law firm to investigate Wesley and two neighboring elementary schools.

Dr. Saavedra said the Wesley investigation was being handled by an outside firm because it was more complex than other investigations. In a May memo, however, the district’s testing coordinator said an external inquiry was desirable “because of the strong political overtones of such an investigation.” Wesley and its affiliated schools were strongly supported by Secretary of Education Rod Paige when he was Houston superintendent.

Kevin Hoffman, a Houston school board member whose district includes both Sanderson and Wesley, said he had heard rumors about possible cheating for some time but had thought HISD was doing a better job of policing improper behavior.

“As awkward as this sounds, I want to thank the Morning News for bringing this to our attention,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that our district officials weren’t able to find these anomalies on their own.”

Support from teachers

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said she supported the district’s moves. She said her organization gets multiple calls each spring from teachers who say they have been told by principals to cheat. In many cases, it’s difficult to get those teachers to make a formal complaint, she said.

“They’re scared to death of what the district will do to them,” she said.

The district will send between 300 and 600 monitors into the schools on testing days. Dr. Saavedra said many will be retired teachers or school administrators who will be specially trained to detect improper testing activity. Others will be district administrators.

Half the monitors will be sent to schools where officials have concerns about the accuracy of test scores. The other half will go to randomly selected schools. No school will know whether they have a monitor until the day of the test, Dr. Saavedra said.

In Dallas, district officials will be discussing a monitoring system similar to Houston’s “in the next 24 to 48 hours,” district spokesman Donald Claxton said Thursday.

Last month’s News analysis found 21 Dallas schools with suspicious scores. After data from the 2003 administration of the test were analyzed, that number grew to 35 schools.

Unlike Houston, which began an investigation into all its schools’ scores after The News’ study, Dallas has done no such broad-based analysis, Mr. Claxton said. The only Dallas school under investigation is Harrell Budd Elementary, where The News analysis found questionable fourth-grade scores.

Dallas interim Superintendent Larry Groppel is scheduled to appear at an Austin press conference Monday alongside Dr. Saavedra and state education Commissioner Shirley Neeley. They are expected to discuss the state agency’s reaction to The News findings.