State acts to regain oversight of W-H; Abbott asks court to negate order barring TEA team from action

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Texas attorney general’s office is asking a Dallas appeals court to immediately return to the state oversight of the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

“It is an emergency request,” said Tom Kelley, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott. “We want to put back what was undone.”

On Friday, state District Court Judge Merrill Hartman issued a temporary restraining order preventing the two state managers – Albert Black and Michelle Willhelm – from interfering with the district’s school board. The managers were imposed on the district in November after months of financial and leadership chaos, including the indictment of Superintendent Charles Matthews.

Under state law, the managers have legal authority to overrule nearly any action by the board. Their presence over the last few months prevented board members from taking steps that state officials believed would be harmful to the district’s well-being.

With the managers temporarily muzzled at Monday night’s school board meeting, trustees made a number of major changes that the managers would have overruled if they could have – including firing interim Superintendent James Damm.

Officials with the attorney general’s office sent the appeal via overnight mail from Austin to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Dallas on Tuesday. The appeal asserts that Judge Hartman did not have the jurisdiction to set aside the state managers, and it seeks a writ of mandamus to return them to office.

The Texas Education Agency is given the right to impose a management team on underperforming school districts by the state’s Education Code. It has imposed more than a dozen management teams on districts in recent years, including a previous state intervention in Wilmer-Hutchins from 1996 to 1998.

The attorney general’s appeal also criticizes Judge Hartman for issuing the restraining order without notifying opposing counsel – a pattern the judge also followed on a separate order he issued in November.

That order, like Friday’s, was sought by Brenda Duff, a former board member who once was one of the current board’s leading critics. The November order prevented the school board from taking action without state oversight. The current order does precisely the opposite, preventing the state from interfering with any action the board takes.

The appeal also says the court had no jurisdiction to issue the restraining order because it was granted as part of a broader suit that had been essentially dropped last month. In the motion seeking the restraining order, Ms. Duff’s attorneys wrote that it should be revived because she is “of the opinion that the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District Board of Trustees has continued to conduct themselves incompetently under the directions of the Texas Education Agency Management team.”

Last week, state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said she was seeking a higher level of intervention in Wilmer-Hutchins: the complete dissolution of its school board and its replacement with a group of state appointees. Such a move requires Justice Department approval, which the agency is seeking.

Ms. Duff has said she sought the restraining order because she is a candidate for a school board seat in May and believes that, if she wins, she should not be removed from the seat by the commissioner’s actions. But her attorney’s motion makes no mention of that concern and has no impact on the state’s ability to seek the board’s dissolution.

While TEA lawyers typically act on the agency’s behalf, the attorney general’s office represents TEA when it is a party in a lawsuit. Mr. Kelley said he could not estimate how quickly the appeals court would act on the motion. “It’s not every day we need to file an emergency request like this,” he said.

TEA plans reply to W-H and judge; Injunction that allowed chief to be fired may be appealed; trustee quits

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Texas Education Agency believes it has every right to intervene in the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins schools, and it plans to fight a judge’s order throwing it out of the district.

“We’re trying to act quickly and put together a response,” said Ron Rowell, the TEA’s senior director of school governance.

State District Court Judge Merrill Hartman signed the order, which was revealed at Monday’s Wilmer-Hutchins board meeting. It prevents two state overseers appointed in November from interfering in district business.

Judge Hartman scheduled a hearing on the injunction for April 8. But TEA officials said the agency probably would move before then, possibly by appealing the matter to a state appellate court or to federal court.

On Monday – freed from state oversight for the first time since November – the board made a number of moves that the state managers probably would have overturned. Among them: the firing of interim Superintendent James Damm and the tentative rehiring of the district’s police department.

Monday’s moves were too much for one school board member to take. Joan Bonner – who often has been on the losing end of 6-1 votes and is widely viewed as the board’s strongest reformer – resigned Tuesday.

“I am fed up,” she said, noting she has missed only three board meetings since 1992. “That meeting was embarrassing. I can’t take it anymore.”

Under district policy, the board’s members can choose Ms. Bonner’s replacement.

Ex-chief of W-H indicted; Attorney denies fired superintendent falsified district attendance data

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Former Wilmer-Hutchins Superintendent Charles Matthews was indicted Tuesday in a case involving allegations that he ordered employees to falsify attendance data.

The indictment by a Dallas County grand jury is the second in the last five months for Dr. Matthews, a former state superintendent of the year. His leadership of the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins district is the target of numerous federal and state criminal investigations and has led the Texas Education Agency to take over district operations.

Reached at his home Tuesday, Dr. Matthews declined to comment and directed questions to his attorney, Ted Steinke. Mr. Steinke said his client “adamantly denies tampering with any attendance records” and would enter a plea of not guilty.

In Texas, school districts receive state funding based on weighted average daily attendance. How much state money a school receives is determined by how many students it has in attendance on an average day. More students means more money.

According to the indictment, in August 2003 Dr. Matthews directed Wilmer-Hutchins attendance clerks to report “a false number of pupils in attendance.” The indictment says Dr. Matthews reported the cooked attendance data to state officials “with knowledge of its falsity and with intent that it be taken as a genuine governmental record.”

A faked attendance rate could also have benefited Dr. Matthews personally. According to his employment contract, he would receive a bonus of nearly $9,000 if every school in the district reported an attendance rate of 95 percent or better.

According to TEA records, he didn’t quite achieve that goal. In 2002-03, five of the district’s nine campuses had attendance rates over 95 percent. In 2003-04 – after Dr. Matthews is accused of directing the false reporting – seven of the district’s 10 campuses met that level.

But even the numbers from before tampering allegedly occurred may have been inflated. In Dr. Matthews’ first year on the job, Wilmer-Hutchins had the biggest increase in its attendance rate of any independent school district in Texas.

The specific charge he faces is tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony. If Dr. Matthews is found guilty, the maximum penalty would be 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Dr. Matthews’ first indictment – one count of felony evidence tampering – came in October. He is accused of ordering the district’s maintenance director, Wallace Faggett, to destroy a stack of purchase orders and other documents that were being sought by criminal investigators. The documents were later found, torn up, in a district trash bin. The Wilmer-Hutchins school board voted to initiate his termination soon after.

The school board itself is in the process of leaving office. State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley informed district leaders Monday that she is removing all seven of the board members from office and appointing unelected replacements.

One of the factors cited by state officials was the board’s unwillingness to finalize Dr. Matthews’ firing at a board meeting March 7. The board voted three times not to fire Dr. Matthews officially, forcing state overseers to overrule their decision.

TEA plan would fail more schools; 92 rated unacceptable now; number could climb over 1,000

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The number of “academically unacceptable” schools in Texas could grow by a factor of 10 under a tougher set of standards approved by a Texas Education Agency committee.

There are now 92 Texas schools labeled unacceptable, the state’s lowest rating. But if the proposed new rules had been in place last year, more than 1,100 schools would have earned the label and faced possible state intervention.

“We’re going to have to go after more schools,” said Sandy Kress, the former Dallas school board president and Bush adviser who is among the new standards’ supporters. “We’re going to have to go to a place we have not gone yet if we really want youngsters to succeed in these ineffective schools.”

But some educators question whether it’s a good idea to change the state ratings system for the expressed purpose of making some schools look worse.

“I think it’s setting up schools to fail,” said Mac Bernd, superintendent of the Arlington district. “I am a strong accountability supporter, but some people have this idea that just because something worked before that more of it will work better.”

The proposal – awaiting approval by Commissioner Shirley Neeley – would raise the TAKS passing rate required for a school to be academically acceptable.

For a school to be acceptable under current law, a school must have at least a 50 percent passing rate in reading, writing, and social studies, a 35 percent passing rate in math and a 25 percent passing rate in science.

10-point jump

According to the proposal approved Monday by the commissioner’s Accountability Advisory Committee, each of those passing rates would increase by 10 percentage points in 2006, and most would march up five more points each year until 2010.

“We can’t be happy with half the students not passing,” said Catherine Clark, associate executive director of governance services for the Texas Association of School Boards and a member of the advisory committee.

The higher required passing rates alone will knock hundreds of schools from the ranks of the acceptable to “academically unacceptable” – the state’s new term for what used to be called “low performing.”

But when combined with other changes already planned to debut in the next year – like a higher passing standard on the TAKS and new restrictions on how schools calculate their dropout rate – the number of newly unacceptable schools could be staggering.

TEA officials haven’t yet estimated how large that number is. That’s because the advisory committee’s recommendations were more extreme than any of the proposals TEA staff had prepared for.

Under the most extreme proposal TEA researched, 1,100 Texas schools would have been rated unacceptable last year. The advisory committee’s proposal would likely tack several hundred more onto that total because it requires higher passing standards in four of the five TAKS subjects.

Hardest hit would likely be the state’s large urban districts, like Dallas and Houston, where dozens of schools would likely be considered unacceptable under the tougher standards.

Those estimates all assume that test scores in 2006 – when the changes would take effect – will be the same as they were in 2004, the last year of complete data. That’s unlikely, since test scores tend to go up every year as schools figure out how to improve performance.

But no matter how fast the improvement, it’s likely these changes would result in a record number of schools being labeled unacceptable. Since the debut of the school ratings system in 1994, the number of low-ranked schools usually has been 100 or fewer.

“I worry about the pressure we’re putting on children and on educators in this state,” said Michael Motheral, superintendent of Sundown schools in the Panhandle. “It’s somewhat inevitable when you have a system that rates kids and schools. But there’s going to be some heartache if we move at this pace.”

Mr. Motheral sits on TEA’s Educator Focus Group on Accountability, a group of school administrators who also advise the commissioner on school ratings issues. His group recommended a slightly smaller change – only increasing required passing rates by five points next year instead of 10.

“I think everybody wants to make sure the kids are challenged,” said Billy Espino, a principal in Fort Stockton who also sits on the educator focus group. “But we also don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot.”

But Mr. Kress said the Texas system needs to be more aggressive about identifying weak schools. He cited one high school where nearly three-quarters of students failed at least one section of the TAKS last year – but was still rated acceptable.

Mr. Kress, who sits on the 27-member advisory committee recommending the 10 percentage-point jump, said he would be happy with a system that identified about one in 10 Texas schools as underachievers each year. (Texas has about 7,700 public schools in total.) Schools have generally done better than expected on the TAKS test since the test’s debut in 2003, and that’s pushing many to advocate tougher standards.

Dr. Bernd, the Arlington superintendent, disagrees. “We shouldn’t assume that when people are doing well the standard’s too low,” he said. “The standards ought to be based on how much we want students to learn, not some pre-set idea of how many schools should fail.”

He also said he believed raising standards too quickly would encourage some educators to cheat on state tests.

Possible penalties

Schools that are rated unacceptable for multiple years are subject to a number of sanctions, including stiff state intervention. Under some proposals being considered in the Legislature, schools that remain unacceptable for several years could be subject to private management.

The debate over passing rates partly is being governed by federal law. The No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001, requires all schools to march their passing rates steadily north toward 100 percent by 2014. The proposed tougher state standards largely mirror the passing rates required by the federal law.

Now Dr. Neeley will have to decide whether to accept the more ambitious proposals of her advisory committee or the more modest recommendations of her educator focus group – or do something else entirely. On one hand, political and business figures generally want standards to get tougher quickly. On the other, superintendents – aware of the power of a poor label – generally favor a slower approach.

“It is really tricky,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. “You want to set goals that are challenging but reachable for most schools. We’ve got some people saying the system’s not hard enough and some saying don’t go too fast.”

Dr. Neeley is expected to make her decision in the next few weeks.

State to dissolve W-H school board; TEA report says more than 20 educators gave students TAKS answers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Wilmer-Hutchins school board will soon be out of work.

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley has decided to dissolve the troubled district’s board because state investigators found widespread cheating by teachers on the state’s TAKS test.

The investigation – prompted by a series of Dallas Morning News stories in November – found that more than 20 Wilmer-Hutchins teachers and administrators gave answers to students.

According to a confidential Texas Education Agency report obtained by The News, teachers ordered students who finished the test early to fix answers on other students’ answer sheets. Some students were required to have their answers checked before proceeding to the next question. And some teachers prepared answer keys for students.

In all, 22 educators were fingered by the investigation – two-thirds of all the educators who administered tests in the district’s elementary schools.

“This significant number appears to indicate a pervasive lack of oversight at three of the four elementary campuses and at the district level to such an extent that the validity of the test results is compromised,” the report said.

Some trustees reacted with outrage at the board dissolution

“We’re being declared guilty for nothing,” said board President Luther Edwards. “We haven’t done anything wrong. It’s the major power brokers who are arranging all this.”

But other area leaders welcomed the change and said the idea of teachers helping students cheat on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is shameful.

“They treated those kids horribly,” Wilmer Mayor Don Hudson said of the educators accused of cheating. “They weren’t doing anyone any favors except themselves. Now we’ll have kids who can’t function in society even with a Wilmer-Hutchins diploma because they were never really taught.”

Under state law, a board of managers is the most severe intervention the commissioner can impose on a school district. The school board will be dissolved and a superintendent appointed.

James Damm has been interim superintendent since Superintendent Charles Matthews was fired in November after being indicted on felony document tampering charges. It was unclear whether Dr. Neeley would choose to reappoint Mr. Damm to the position or choose a new leader.

“I have to try to digest … the report and see what it really means,” Mr. Damm said.

District woes

Wilmer-Hutchins has been hammered by a series of crises in the last year, beginning with a summer storm that damaged Wilmer-Hutchins High School and left it in such condition that the start of school had to be delayed. Among the other problems:

*The district’s evaporating fund balance, which meant the district didn’t have the money to pay teachers on time twice last fall.

*Criminal investigations launched by the FBI, the Texas Rangers and county and federal grand juries, including allegations that district officials fudged attendance records to increase state funding.

*The indictment of Dr. Matthews and maintenance director Wallace Faggett after they were accused of destroying purchase orders and other documents sought by criminal investigators.

*The revelation that its chief attorney – since fired – practiced for a time without a law license.

*A judge’s ruling that banned the school board from meeting because it posed a danger to the district’s well-being.

*The discovery that the district had been setting its tax rate illegally since the 1970s.

“School governance is unstable in Wilmer-Hutchins ISD and has been so for many years,” Dr. Neeley wrote in a letter to district leaders Monday.

The final trigger for the dissolution of the school board was the cheating scandal. Even before Monday’s report, the allegations were supported by the district’s abysmal performance on this spring’s TAKS. In response to concerns about cheating, more than 70 state monitors were sent to oversee the first round of TAKS testing last month in all the district’s elementary schools.

With teachers being watched for improper behavior, scores plummeted.

This year, 39 percent of the district’s fifth-graders passed the reading TAKS. That’s 36 percentage points below the state average.

It’s also quite a change from last year, when 89 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins fifth-graders passed the reading test – 9 percentage points above the state average.

“It’s a pretty unbelievable drop in scores,” said Suzanne Marchman, a TEA spokeswoman. “The fifth-grade scores are lousy.”

Third-graders saw a similar, though smaller, drop – from 89 percent last year to 72 percent this year.

Concerns about the validity of Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores were first raised in a News investigation in November that found statistically unlikely swings in the district’s performance. Several students also said teachers had given them answers while administering the TAKS.

State investigation

After the News articles, the TEA began an investigation. In all, 54 students and 31 current and former district employees were interviewed.

Investigators also found that unusually high numbers of answers were erased and replaced on the answer sheets of Wilmer-Hutchins students – and that unusually high numbers of the erasures changed wrong answers to correct ones.

For example, in one third-grade classroom at Wilmer Elementary, student answer sheets had 57 times more erasures than the state average.

Through interviews, investigators found evidence of cheating at all four Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools: Alta Mesa, C.S. Winn, Wilmer and Hutchins. (Hutchins Elementary was closed as a cost-cutting measure in December.)

The report does not identify any of the teachers involved but does indicate that violations were most commonly found among third-grade teachers. Of the 10 educators who administered the test to third-graders, eight were found to have committed violations. Third grade is the year that students take a must-pass reading test in order to be promoted.

As a result of the findings, Dr. Neeley said she will be lowering the ratings of Alta Mesa, C.S. Winn and Wilmer to “academically unacceptable,” the lowest possible. The district’s overall rating will also be lowered.

That’s important because state officials have said that, under state law, a board of managers can be imposed only on a district with the state’s lowest rating.

Dr. Neeley must now appoint a board and superintendent. Mr. Hudson, the Wilmer mayor, said that he spoke with Dr. Neeley on Monday and that the commissioner gave him the names of some of the members, though he said he did not recognize them. He said some were from the immediate area and some were not.

The TEA must also get Justice Department approval for the move because it involves the removal of an elected body.

Since the November appointment of a two-person management team, board members have clashed repeatedly with their state overseers, forcing the state managers to use their power to overrule decisions. Most recently, the board voted three times this month not to finalize the firing of Dr. Matthews, despite a state hearing examiner’s report recommending the indicted leader’s termination be finalized.

Mr. Edwards, a board member for 12 years, has said repeatedly that state intervention is not driven by poor decisions by the board. The real cause, he said, is a conspiracy of greed, led by shady, unknown individuals.

“We’re being held accountable for things that we didn’t do wrong,” he said. If there was cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins, blame should fall on principals, not the board, he said.

But Michelle Willhelm, one of the state managers, said she agreed with the decision to impose a board of managers.

“The board is a hindrance to progress,” she said. “It’s better to move them aside and let a board of managers move ahead.”

The commissioner’s recommendations are included in a preliminary report that was released to district officials Monday. Mr. Damm and board members have 10 days to comment on the report’s findings, after which the TEA will issue a final report and formally take steps to dissolve the board.

New TAKS scores worry school officials; 1 of 4 fifth-graders fails reading, but districts may still promote

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Giving a high-stakes test to 10-year-olds is proving more complicated than state officials may have expected.

One of every four fifth-graders failed the TAKS reading test last month, officials announced Friday. That’s slightly better than last year. But this is the first year students have to pass the test to be promoted to sixth grade.

“We are concerned,” Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “We’re going to have to do some analysis on the data and see what action we may need to take.”

But if experience is any guide, some schools will still find ways to promote even the lowest-performing students. In some school districts, more than 70 percent of students who have failed the TAKS three times still end up advancing a grade – despite state officials’ proclamations that social promotion has ended.

This year’s fifth-grade scores were disappointing in districts across the state. In Dallas, 55 percent of fifth-grade students passed the test. In Grand Prairie, it was 74 percent.

“We had hoped it would be much higher,” said Sue Harris, Grand Prairie’s executive director of planning and evaluation. “But it looks like lots of people in the state were functioning at about the same level.”

Texas’ efforts to end social promotion began in 2003, when third-graders were first required to pass the TAKS reading test to move on to fourth grade. This year, the requirement extends to the fifth-grade reading and math tests. In 2008, eighth-graders will also have to pass the reading and math TAKS.

In all the affected grades, students get three chances to pass the TAKS. But even students who fail three times have one final opportunity to be promoted. For each failing student, schools assemble a grade placement committee, made up of the child’s teacher, principal and a parent.

If all three agree the child should be promoted, he is.

Safety nets?

The grade placement committees were meant to provide a safety measure for good students who, for some reason, had trouble with the test. But their local nature also allows districts to have wildly varying standards about who gets promoted and who gets held back.

For example, in the Ector County ISD, 43 third-graders failed the 2003 TAKS test three times. But according to state data, 35 of them – 81 percent – were promoted to fourth grade anyway.

Contrast that with McAllen schools, where 74 students failed TAKS three times. Only five of those were promoted to fourth grade.

In 2003, Waco promoted only 16 percent of its TAKS-failing third-graders, one of the lowest totals in the state.

“We just don’t believe promoting kids who can’t do the work helps them,” said Marsha Ridlehuber, Waco’s assistant superintendent for accountability.

Grand Prairie doesn’t promote many of its test-failing third-graders – about 22 percent in 2003. Ms. Harris attributed that to the close work the district does with the parents of struggling students.

“We keep the parent involved with us all the way through, so that when the kid doesn’t do well, the parent realizes the kid does need more work and is cooperative,” she said.

Wendy Hines, executive director of elementary education in Ector County schools, said there was no conscious push to promote more than four-fifths of its TAKS-failing third-graders.

“Those decisions are made at the individual campus, based on what’s best for the child,” she said.

Districts at both ends of the spectrum are acting within their rights. “These decisions are local decisions,” said Ms. Culbertson, the TEA spokeswoman. “There are guidelines that have to be followed, but each decision is made for an individual child.”

But the wide disparities between districts are surprising to some educators.

“I’d just assumed everyone was going to do what we do and believe in ending social promotion,” Dr. Ridlehuber said.

Disappointing outcome

The low scores of this year’s fifth-graders were particularly disappointing to officials because the same students had performed well under pressure before. This year’s fifth-graders were the first group to take the high-stakes TAKS as third-graders two years ago and scored surprisingly well.

“We need to see if the students who didn’t do as well this year were the same ones who did well before, or if they were new to Texas schools,” Ms. Culbertson said.

Fifth-graders will get two more chances to pass the reading test this year, and history has shown that many are likely to improve their scores. Last year, 89 percent of students passed the high-stakes third-grade reading test on the first try. But about half of those who failed passed on their second attempt.

On the other hand, fifth-graders also have the math test to worry about. This is the first year Texas has required any of its students to pass a math test to be promoted.

The fifth-grade math test will be given April 5, with the first retest of the reading test coming two weeks later.

Column: Standardized essay might be formula for bad writing

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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I’d like to apologize in advance for the quality of this column. I just ask that you keep in mind that I have the writing ability of a below-average 15-year-old.

But more about that later. On Saturday, thousands of nervous high school kids will line up their No. 2 pencils and take a brand-new version of the SAT. For the first time, it’ll include a writing section and require kids to write a short essay. The ACT added a new writing section this year, too.

You’d think writing teachers – used to being shunted aside in recent years while reading and math get all the hype – would be thrilled their subject is getting the extra attention.

But some of them worry that the tests could be encouraging bad writing, not good.

“The risk is that the kind of writing that does well on a test becomes the only kind of writing that gets taught,” said Richard Sterling, executive director of the National Writing Project, which trains writing teachers. “It ends up being incredibly reductive, and that does real harm to children.”

Here’s what I mean: The kind of writing that gets you a high score on most standardized tests isn’t necessarily pleasant to read. It’s overstructured, stilted and dry.

People have figured this out. For instance, the Princeton Review has analyzed the new SAT writing section to figure out how best to boost the scores of its teenage customers. Its advice: Be boring.

“The grading of these essays is going to be very superficial,” said Andy Lutz, Princeton Review’s vice president of program development. “It’s easy to coach kids how to write in a formulaic way that will score well.”

If a kid wants to do well on the test, he says, the key is to write in neat handwriting, have clear structure, and don’t take any chances. Attempts to be interesting are at least as likely to be punished as rewarded.

In the 1990s, Texas’ TAAS test faced the same criticisms. The essay topics on TAAS were set up in a way that just begged for clunky writing: a dull introductory paragraph, three dull middle paragraphs, and a dull final paragraph that sums up the dull dullness of paragraphs one through four.

In time, Texas teachers realized this and started teaching kids how to write dull instead of how to write well. After all, boring, straitjacketed prose was the easiest way to get your passing rate up.

“Teachers started teaching that one format almost exclusively,” said Liz Stevens, who heads a training program for writing teachers in central Texas. “It ended up causing our students to write in a very formulaic way.”

As a result, passing rates on the writing TAAS went up. But the performance of Texas students on national writing tests actually went down – perhaps because kids were only being taught how to write dull prose.

(To the state’s credit, the teachers I’ve talked to all say the new TAKS writing tests are much improved and give kids more room to be interesting.)

So by the very act of testing writing, do we risk making kids worse writers?

That brings us back to my middle-school mediocrity: A couple years ago, I got a tour of the headquarters of a major testing corporation. I met lots of smart people, and some of them were excited about a new computer program they were developing.

The pitch: The program could grade a 10th-grader’s essay, and do it just as well as a human could. Finally, writing could be machine-graded, just like multiple-choice geometry problems. Lots of companies are trying to do the same thing.

I was invited to give the system a try and write an essay. I’m not allowed to tell you the topic – I was sworn to secrecy – but I can tell you that I tried to write a bright, engaging essay that didn’t follow the dry structure of so many student papers. By the time I’d finished, I was pretty happy with my work.

Now, at the risk of bragging, I do get paid to write for a living. But when the computer crunched my essay, rating it on a scale of one to six, it coldly informed me I was a … three.

I was a below-average 15-year-old.

I’d written an essay that tried not to be boring, that didn’t follow the formula. And I’d gotten dinged for it.

My bruised ego can take comfort in what Andy Lutz says about the way these standardized-test essays are graded – even when it’s a human reading them, not a computer.

“These tests reward you for being straightforward and long-winded,” he says. “In the real world, it can be good to take rhetorical chances and write something different. But on these tests, following the formula gets rewarded.”

Is that the formula to create good writers?

W-H board could face removal, report says; Officials suggest review in May; president calls criticism a conspiracy

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

State officials could try to kick the Wilmer-Hutchins school board out of office as soon as May if board members don’t improve their attitude, according to a new state report.

But the board’s president said the report is just the latest sign of a “major conspiracy” that seeks to destroy the troubled school district and has already stolen a state football championship from Wilmer-Hutchins High.

“Ray Charles was blind, but even he could see the conspiracy,” Luther Edwards said. “You may beat us, just like slavery, but we will still fight you until the last breath.”

“That is ridiculous,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. “If we had wanted to close this district down, there probably could have been opportunities before now. It’s an insult to suggest the management team wants to do anything other than save this district. But because of long-term mismanagement, its future is unclear right now.”

The report – written by the district’s two state managers, Albert Black and Michelle Willhelm – criticizes the school board for not being cooperative with emergency measures required to bring the nearly insolvent district to financial stability.

“The board of trustees has taken very little initiative to find solutions to its financial and instructional problems,” the report says. “This unwillingness to deal with difficult financial decisions supports the concern expressed by many in the community that the board would be unable or unwilling to meet its governance responsibilities without the state’s presence and oversight of the district’s operations.”

The report recommends that the Texas Education Agency keep the state managers in place until May, when “a determination can be made about the board of trustees’ commitment to the efficient and effective operations of the school district.”

Under state law, the TEA can eliminate the board by upgrading the level of its intervention in the district from a management team – the title Mr. Black and Ms. Willhelm hold – to a board of managers.

Under that scenario, the TEA would remove the entire school board from office and appoint a state-selected group of trustees to replace them.

Conspiracy theory

Mr. Edwards, the board president, said the criticism is unfounded and the latest step in what he said is a decades-old, wide-ranging conspiracy to destroy Wilmer-Hutchins. The district has been among the state’s worst for decades, and state officials have intervened in Wilmer-Hutchins’ affairs dozens of times. Many have accused board members of sabotaging state efforts.

“You’ve got people who want to see this district abolished,” Mr. Edwards said. “It’s all about money. It’s a conspiracy. People need to wake up.”

He said he would not speculate who was a part of the conspiracy but that it included “major players in the state.” He said he did not know whether Mr. Black and Ms. Willhelm were part of the conspiracy.

Mr. Edwards said the conspiracy was driven by wealthy people who want to profit off the purchase of land within the district’s boundaries. He said he believes that the district’s endless stream of problems in recent years have largely been the invention of members of the conspiracy.

“You want to get us out of the way, so you put the state in charge and they find all these things that are wrong,” he said. “Anybody who is standing in the way of progress will get run over.”

Mr. Edwards said the conspiracy intervened in Wilmer-Hutchins High’s football season last fall, when the high-ranked Eagles lost a Nov. 26 playoff game to Tatum, 23-19.

“Our football team would have won the state championship, but the politics got in the way,” he said. “The referees took the game away from the kids.”

He said referees also stole a football championship from Wilmer-Hutchins when he was a student in the early 1970s.

Options open

Since the current state takeover began in November, board members have had to be overruled by state managers when they have refused to carry out TEA’s cost-cutting wishes.

“At recent board meetings, several trustees have strongly expressed opposition to urgent, emergency measures needed to balance the budget, solve cash flow problems, and meet payroll obligations,” according to the report.

Several TEA officials expressed interest in imposing a board of managers when considering the agency’s takeover options last fall. But they eventually determined that, under state law, it could not remove the school board unless the district had received the lowest mark, academically unacceptable, in the state’s school ratings system.

But the district could earn that rating in the next few weeks. In November, The Dallas Morning News analyzed Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores and found statistical patterns that strongly suggest organized, educator-led cheating on the state TAKS tests.

That led the TEA to launch an investigation into allegations of cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools.

State investigators are expected to report their findings in the next few weeks. If they confirm widespread cheating, TEA could choose to lower the district’s rating to academically unacceptable, which could ease the way for a takeover.

Ms. Ratcliffe said no final decision has been reached on eliminating the school board. But she said the agency is “studying the section of the law that dictates how a board of managers can be appointed.”