Wilmer-Hutchins’ door closes, another opens; Broke, scandalized and a failure, school district shuts down; At midnight, what’s left of agency becomes part of DISD, which took in its children last fall

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The earthly remains of Wilmer-Hutchins were, in the end, few.

A few broken buildings. Some debts, some indictments. A few thousand kids who learned less than they should have.

Everything that could be put in boxes was Thursday, as the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District slipped into the past tense. After decades of mismanagement and crisis, Wilmer-Hutchins will legally cease to exist when the clock strikes midnight tonight. Under orders from the state of Texas, it will be absorbed into the Dallas school district.

“It’s a sad day for the district, but it’s also a new day,” said Donnie Foxx, one of the state-appointed managers who have shepherded the district through its declining days.

The district’s skeleton staff – down to 10 from more than 400 two years ago – went out for a nice lunch at Truluck’s and said their goodbyes Thursday afternoon.

They would have locked the doors one last time. But Dallas staffers were too busy carting off the district’s remaining items of value.

“I think in the long run, kids will have a better chance to get a good education – that’s the important part,” said Ron Rowell, the Texas Education Agency employee who has spent the past few months as acting superintendent.

For decades, his agency was criticized for not doing enough to stop corruption and mismanagement in Wilmer-Hutchins. The district was sick, residents said, and needed immediate attention from TEA.

They got their wish. But most residents hoped the patient could be saved. Instead, state officials chose a mercy killing.

Long list of problems

The list of Wilmer-Hutchins’ problems was long.

For starters, it was broke. Despite being one of the best-funded districts in North Texas – it got more state and federal dollars per student than any other area district – it consistently found ways to fritter money away.

It mostly went to the salaries of its employees; Wilmer-Hutchins had 30 to 40 percent more staff than most districts its size. Many of those employees were hired at the recommendation of board members.

But the raid of district headquarters by the FBI and Texas Rangers in 2004 – and the seizure of many of its financial records – suggests something else may have been at work, too. (An FBI spokesperson confirmed this week that their investigation is still active.)

It was an academic failure. In grades six and up, in every subject, student test scores were dead last (or close to it) among the 1,000-plus school districts in Texas.

In the lower grades, test scores seemed better – until it became clear that teachers were helping students cheat in each of the district’s elementary schools. When the cheating was stopped, their scores crashed to the floor, too.

The district’s former superintendent, Charles Matthews, has been indicted twice. Prosecutors say that he ordered purchase orders shredded before the FBI could find them and faked attendance data in order to generate more state funding. His trials have been pushed back to November.

Race was the not-well-hidden subtext of just about everything about Wilmer-Hutchins, the only black-run district in North Texas. It was run by segregationist whites until the late 1960s and became largely run by blacks around 1980. It was, by most measures, a bad district under each group; state officials threatened to remove its accreditation when it was run by whites, too.

Since 2004, the district has gone through a series of interim superintendents, white and black, and moved through the stages of slow state takeover. The school board was thrown out of office in March 2005 and replaced by state appointees.

When Wilmer-Hutchins didn’t have enough money to open its doors last fall, Dallas ISD agreed to take the students for one year. Not long after that, TEA issued its death sentence, effective July 1.

For kids, the result has been daily bus rides to 25 Dallas schools, some an hour long. There have been fights between Wilmer-Hutchins kids and the Dallas natives, and many parents aren’t happy with the arrangement.

“They don’t know how to discipline students in Dallas,” said Doris Roberson, a grandmother of five whose children used to attend Wilmer-Hutchins schools. “I can’t stand that new school.”

Ms. Roberson lives one convenient block away from Bishop Heights Elementary and Kennedy-Curry Middle School, in the old Wilmer-Hutchins district. Now, 7-year-old Keion McKnight’s ride is about 30 minutes each way. He’s shy, but through shrugs and a few quiet sentences, he lets it be known he liked Bishop Heights better than his new school. “Because the teachers were nicer,” he said.

They’ll stay on those buses for years. Dallas officials say they have no plans to reopen any of the old Wilmer-Hutchins school buildings. At least one will be leased to a charter school; others may be sold to the highest bidder.

If the population in that part of the county grows, as demographers expect, Dallas may build new schools in the area. But that would have to wait until after the district passes another bond issue, which would be November 2007 at the earliest.

Vandals add insult

Closing a 79-year-old school district is not easy. What to do with the old yearbooks? The championship trophies? The kids’ art on the walls?

It’s all being boxed up for storage in DISD warehouses. On Thursday, Bill Gaston and his crew of four were in charge of gathering up the district’s computer equipment, loading it onto a semi truck backed up to the administration building’s side door.

Mr. Gaston has worked at DISD for 14 years. He’s a calm, measured man who takes working for a public school district seriously. Over the last year, as he has inventoried district computers, vandals have broken into Wilmer-Hutchins’ schools repeatedly.

Usually they’d smash a window to get in. A few times they stole computers. More often they just made a mess.

The worst break-in was a few months ago, at Alta Mesa Elementary. Alta Mesa was one of the schools that community volunteers cleaned up and repaired last year.

The vandals raged against the school library. “They completely destroyed it,” Mr. Gaston said. “They pulled down all the bookshelves. They destroyed the computers, the copy machine. They dumped the toner out everywhere, tore up the books. Emptied the fire extinguishers.”

Why would people destroy a school library? How enraged would they have to be?

“These schools are places for children to learn,” Mr. Gaston said. “I just can’t understand someone being that angry.”

After the administration building has been gutted of its productive innards, someone from Dallas ISD will come by with a giant padlock and seal it shut, perhaps for decades, like some bad-management time capsule.

Last meeting, last tears

Wednesday night was Wilmer-Hutchins’ final board meeting, and it was a sleepy affair – a far sight from the mud fights that used to erupt like Old Faithful. (As former trustee Joan Bonner used to say: “Instead of spending money and going to the zoo, just get yourself a bag of popcorn and a drink and come to a board meeting. It’s just as entertaining.”)

Only five people turned up for the valedictory. There was Ms. Bonner, the “1” of countless 6-1 board votes and often the only board voice opposing indicted Dr. Matthews. And there was Lionel Churchill, one of the district’s first black board members in the 1970s and perhaps the most tactically skilled opponent of the Matthews regime.

“So many things were not working that it was hard to see how it could be fixed,” he said. “You could never weed out the whole root cause of the problem without just terminating everybody and starting over.”

Those in the audience had one last chance to give the board a piece of their mind. Each had been a prominent critic of the Matthews administration, but – with the exception of Mr. Churchill – each thought dissolving the district was going too far.

“I’m hurt and I’m angry,” Ms. Bonner said. “Because as parents…”

Here she started to cry, something the iron-willed Ms. Bonner is not known for. Her son Jeremy just graduated from A. Maceo Smith High School without missing a single day of school from age 3 on. He’s joining the Marine Corps.

“Because as parents, all the love we had for our children was not enough to save the district,” Ms. Bonner said. “We didn’t have the legal power or the financial power.”

The substance of the meeting was perfunctory. There were accounts to be transferred, utilities to be cut, buildings to be rekeyed. Let it be noted that the last official act of the Wilmer-Hutchins board was to approve a $617 legal settlement with a former employee named Letha Green. Hers was one of the 72 lawsuits filed over the district’s demise.

At the meeting’s close, the district’s leaders gave a quick round of thank-yous to each other and to the remaining staff. Then board president Albert Black closed up shop.

“Today is the 28th of June, two thousand and six. The time is 8:52 p.m.” Pause. “And with our work being concluded, we are adjourned.”

TAKS online testing option raises concerns; Aim is to save money, time, but cheating, fairness are worries

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

If you own stock in a company that makes No. 2 pencils, now might be a good time to sell.

After a few years of tiptoeing, Texas is preparing to take its first big step into online testing. School districts have the option to administer next spring’s TAKS test by computer.

“Students have become more and more accustomed to a computer environment,” said Susan Barnes, associate commissioner for standards and programs at the Texas Education Agency. “That has become the mode of how they interact.”

Some worry that the shift, designed to eventually save money and time, could have substantial implications for the tests’ fairness. Not every school has access to the same quality or quantity of computers.

It could also be a solution to Texas’ cheating problems – or make them worse, depending on who’s talking.

How many kids will take the TAKS online? Somewhere between zero and 1.6 million. It’s up to each school district to decide whether students will be clicking checkboxes or penciling in bubbles. Only students in grades seven and higher will get computer time; younger kids will remain paperbound.

Tackling Mount Paper

For those who don’t work in schools, it’s difficult to conceive of the amount of paper that Texas’ testing process requires. For weeks before test day, stacked boxes of test booklets and answer documents line the rooms of Texas schoolhouses. Each of those heavy boxes has to be shipped twice at great expense, first out to schools and then back to the scoring factory.

Multiply all those boxes times 7,000 schools to understand the small forest Texas destroys in the name of TAKS each year.

“I once justified the job of testing coordinator of this district by adding up the tonnage of paper we handled,” said Whit Johnstone, the director of testing and research for Irving schools.

The total, circa the mid-1990s: 15 tons. “It hasn’t gone down since then,” he said.

Testing online eliminates all of that. In a letter to school districts sent last month, TEA’s director of student assessment encouraged districts to move online because of the reduced paper handling and quicker grading turnarounds it promises.

“More importantly, within three years it is possible that some of the state assessments will be administered exclusively online,” wrote the official, Lisa Chandler.

All that paper lying around can also have an impact on test security. Some Texas schools have come under fire in recent years for potential cheating on the TAKS, driven either by students sharing answers or teachers providing them.

Moving tests online would prevent teachers from getting access to test questions days before the test or doctoring answer sheets once students are finished.

“So much of the security issue is counting booklets and answer sheets and making sure everything is secure and accounted for,” said Cynthia Bean, principal at Irving MacArthur High School. Until last month, she was principal at Austin Middle School, which has given the eighth-grade TAKS test online the last two years.

But Stephanie Gertz, a private testing consultant based in Boston, said she doesn’t think online testing will reduce cheating in the long term.

“I think you’ll see a dip in cheating initially, as they switch to the computers,” she said. “But if people want to cheat, they can cheat. I guess I don’t have much faith in people. Or you could say I have a lot of faith in people’s ingenuity.”

If hackers can break into Defense Department computers, there probably will be some 15-year-old who can break into a test company’s server, she reasons. It may be difficult to restrict access to other programs on a computer – like a Web browser or instant messenger client that could help kids find answers – during test administrations.

And if schools are allowed to give tests within a window of time – instead of all on the same day – students may find ways to distribute answers to friends, using screen-capture programs or other tools.

“Students are creative,” Dr. Barnes of the TEA said. “We will be vigilant.”

What about fairness?

The fairness issues are perhaps the thorniest. With the paper-and-pencil TAKS, a testing classroom in Brownsville is virtually identical to one in Beaumont. But not every school offers the same quality of or access to computers.

Dr. Gertz said she expects that problem to go away with time, as computers become more common in poorer homes and classrooms. Until then, she said, Texas is smart to make online testing optional for districts.

Texas has dipped its testing toes in the online waters before. It has allowed schools to volunteer their eighth-graders as TAKS guinea pigs for the last several years. In addition, kids who have failed the exit-level TAKS – required for graduation – have been able to take some retests online.

Those attempts haven’t always been smooth. Last December, during an exit-level TAKS retest, server problems led to crashes and nerve-wracking problems. Dr. Johnstone said Irving staff spent most of the morning one test day trying to connect their computers to the state servers that held the test.

“There have been some hiccups,” Dr. Johnstone said. For the teenagers who were taking the most important test of their young lives: “It wasn’t comfortable.”

Dr. Barnes acknowledged the past issues but said the system will be able to scale to the size required if hundreds of thousands of children are to take an online test at the same time.

An informal survey of North Texas school districts did not find any ready to commit to giving the TAKS online next spring, but for the most part those decisions are yet to be made. In Irving, for instance, the decision will be left up to individual principals, Dr. Johnstone said.

“I think it would be fabulous,” Ms. Bean said. “I think it’s the wave of the future, and I would want to be a part of that.”

Texas isn’t quite at the leading edge of online testing. It’s still many electrons shy of states like Virginia, where 90 percent of this spring’s state high-school assessments were taken on computers. The success of online testing there has encouraged the push down into middle schools and, starting this spring, elementary schools.

In Virginia, schools can receive their students’ results the same day the test is given, which means they can push weaker kids into remediation more quickly. In Texas, getting back test results is a question of weeks, not hours.

“We were looking for ways to speed up the process, and online testing was one way to do it,” said Julie Grimes, a Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman.

Column: Good schools available for parents who care; If your child’s education is a priority, you have an option

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

Why do some parents make such stupid decisions?

That was the question that kept popping into my mind last week as I walked around the KIPP TRUTH Academy in South Dallas.

(For the moment, please forgive their over-commitment to capital letters.)

Here was a middle school, in a poor part of town, that put academics first. A free charter school with a demonstrated record of taking struggling neighborhood kids and putting them on a path to college. A school whose graduates will get scholarships to Dallas’ most elite private high schools and who will eventually be successful in life.

And it opened school this month with 20 empty seats in its fifth-grade class.

Before you ask why a school was opening in June, let me explain. KIPP TRUTH is part of the terrific KIPP chain of nonprofit charter schools. Their philosophy: Any kids can learn if they’re willing to work hard.

Class goes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week. There are classes on Saturday. There’s even a mandatory three-week summer school. (That’s why school opened this month.) Kids are given homework – and actually required to do it.

“Kids who are behind need extra time and extra help,” Steve Colmus, the school’s principal, told me. “We are all about getting kids into college, and there aren’t any shortcuts to that.”

In exchange for that commitment from students, teachers commit to working long hours, giving kids their cellphone numbers and requiring them to call at night if they have problems with their homework.

The results show up in test scores. When the first class of fifth-graders arrived at KIPP in the fall of 2003, the school gave them a nationally accepted standardized test. They were functioning at the level of third-graders.

But less than two years later – at the end of sixth grade – those same kids were reading like seventh-graders and doing math like 10th-graders.

The results show up on state tests, too. Last year, KIPP TRUTH’s math passing rate on the TAKS was 10 points above the state average.

But you don’t need numbers to know KIPP works. You can just walk into a classroom and see the kids engaged in what they’re learning. You can hear the polite, disciplined way they talk. You can watch them walking to lunch with their noses pressed into a book.

There are reasons why the KIPP model might not scale well. A lot of teachers don’t want to work its long hours. And it takes a bit more money to run a KIPP school than most public schools. (At KIPP TRUTH, Dallas billionaire Todd Wagner makes up the difference.)

But those reasons don’t explain those 20 empty seats. Dumb decisions by parents do.

I’m talking about parents who send their daughter to a bad school just because it’s close to where they work. Or send their son to a high school with horrid test scores but a good football team. It’s amazing how often something other than academic achievement is Priority No. 1 when it comes to picking a school.

That’s the core problem with school choice as a solution to our educational woes. They count on parents to make smart decisions. Many don’t.

An example: Texas has something called the Public Education Grant program. It pays for kids stuck in low-scoring schools to transfer elsewhere. But almost none actually do it. In 2003, 92,000 Texas kids were eligible to transfer.

The number who actually did: 127.

Another example: There are some plumb-awful charter schools in this state. Charter schools are supposed to bring the free market to education; parents can choose whether to send their kids there, and theoretically if a charter school is bad, parents should flee.

But parents don’t flee. Once they choose a bad school, they tend to stick to it. So the bad charters stick around, too.

The old political saying goes that if you ask Americans what they think of Congress, they’ll say it’s full of incompetent thieves. But if you ask them about their particular congressman – well, he seems like such a nice fellow in the commercials, doesn’t he?

The same is true of public schools. Talking trash about “the schools” is as accepted as complaining about the heat in July. But people think their local school is an exception. So they stick with it, even when evidence mounts that it’s not the best place to be.

Now, I understand that no parent wants to think she’s not giving her child the best. I’ve written a lot of stories about Wilmer-Hutchins, which was about as bad a school district as has ever scarred the earth. But despite all its troubles, a lot of parents defended Wilmer-Hutchins to the death – because at least it was theirs.

And obviously, not everyone has the same choices. Not everyone can choose to send Junior to St. Mark’s or Hockaday. And for some families, questions of logistics rule out all but a few options.

But it kills me to see empty chairs at KIPP. Each one of them means another parent has made a bad decision.

If you live in South Dallas and you want your rising fifth-grader to get a good education – if that’s your top priority – you might want to call Steve Colmus. His number is 214-375-8326.

If that’s not your top priority, ask yourself why.

TAKS analysis suggests many graduates cheated; Exclusive: DISD, other districts unlikely to look into suspicious scores

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

An alarming number of students who graduated from Texas high schools last month probably cheated to get there – and state education officials are in no hurry to catch them.

A state-sponsored analysis found thousands of suspicious scores on the 11th-grade TAKS, the test students must pass to graduate.

The study found 96 Texas high schools where groups of last year’s 11th-graders turned in unusually similar answer sheets – suggesting they may have been copying each other’s answers. Scores in almost every Dallas neighborhood high school raised red flags.

Eleventh-grade classrooms were more than eight times more likely to have suspicious scores than those in other grades, researchers found.

The study’s results don’t surprise experts. “Levels of cheating in high school are at astronomical levels,” said Tim Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University.

But in Texas, state and local officials say that these unusual patterns in data – even those that researchers say are millions of times less likely to occur than your being struck by lightning tomorrow – are not enough to trigger scrutiny.

The result is that many of the most egregious cases of likely cheating will go uninvestigated.

“Yeah, kids cheat,” said Devin Gustafson, 2006 valedictorian at Seagoville High School, one of the 18 Dallas schools that made the list.

“If you want to cheat on the TAKS, it’s not hard.”

The findings are the result of a comprehensive analysis performed, at the state’s request, by a Utah company called Caveon. It was hired last summer after a series of Dallas Morning News stories found evidence of educator-led cheating in many Texas schools.

The Texas Education Agency paid Caveon more than $500,000 to examine test scores and search for the sort of statistical anomalies that could indicate cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The analysis looked for a variety of patterns, such as a classroom where students made performance gains of unlikely size, or where students answered very difficult questions with ease but struggled with more simple ones.

But the most common anomaly Caveon found was what it called “very similar test responses.” That means, in a particular classroom or grade, an unusual number of students answered all or nearly all questions in the same way – including both wrong and right answers.

In its report to Texas officials, Caveon said it only flagged cases with “a low probability of occurring by chance.” While it acknowledges that statistics alone are not conclusive proof of cheating, the report says Caveon used a “very conservative statistical approach.”

“The conservative approach ensures that while not every potential instance of a statistical inconsistency is identified, those that are identified will be so anomalous that reasonable explanations of these inconsistencies by referring to normal circumstances become improbable,” the report states.

‘Anomalies’

State officials say that just because a large number of a classroom’s students had identical answer sheets doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worthy of investigation.

“Caveon is pretty much the national expert on this sort of thing,” said Shirley Neeley, the state’s education commissioner. “But I look at that list and think these are anomalies. I didn’t immediately think the worst.”

Is it cheating? Perhaps the key piece of supporting evidence is how much more common the “very similar” anomalies are in 11th grade than at other grades.

Caveon found 486 Texas classrooms with an unusual cluster of “very similar” answer sheets.

If those findings were not the result of cheating – if they were just statistical background noise – one might expect them to be evenly distributed among the nine grades in which Texas tests.

But that’s not what Caveon found. In grades three to 10, it identified an average of 29 classrooms where test scores suggest answer copying.

In 11th grade, Caveon found 253.

“That’s exactly what you would expect: The higher the stakes, the more likely you’re going to have some kind of dishonest behavior,” said Jason Stephens, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut who studies high school cheating.

The “very similar” answer sheets were concentrated in the two school districts that have faced the most cheating allegations in the past: Dallas and Houston. Both urban districts had 18 high schools earn the “very similar” flag at 11th grade.

Of Dallas’ 21 traditional neighborhood high schools, 17 made Caveon’s list. So did one magnet school, the School of Education and Social Services.

That’s the district’s school for aspiring teachers.

In contrast, none were found in San Antonio or El Paso, and only one was found in Austin, again suggesting the pattern is not random.

Only one school in the Dallas suburbs – McKinney North – had an unusual cluster of similar test scores. Four Fort Worth high schools also had the pattern.

But state and local officials insist there must be some explanation for the 11th-grade scores – something other than cheating.

“We are not going to speculate on the reason that that number occurred,” said Susan Barnes, the state’s associate commissioner for standards and programs.

“I just believe there’s a logical explanation somewhere,” Dr. Neeley said. She added that she did not know what that explanation might be.

Inquiries unlikely

It’s unclear whether an explanation will ever be found, because many of the schools will probably go uninvestigated.

Initially, TEA chose not to even tell districts that their schools had suspicious score patterns. Dr. Barnes said the agency informed schools only because The News had requested the testing data under open-records law.

“We would not have done it otherwise,” she said.

Dr. Neeley informed the districts on Caveon’s list in a May 31 letter. But the commissioner did not demand that they begin even a cursory investigation into the suspicious numbers. Instead, she asked districts only to “conduct any investigations you deem necessary to explain” the results.

Many districts are interpreting that to mean it’s OK not to investigate Caveon’s findings.

The Dallas school district is one.

“We have no investigations planned,” said Donald Claxton, the district’s spokesman. “This [the Caveon report] just identifies unusual patterns. It’s nothing conclusive.”

Dr. Barnes said that TEA did not feel comfortable asking districts to investigate Caveon’s findings without any additional supporting evidence, such as eyewitness testimony of cheating.

1999 investigation

But TEA has done precisely that in the past. In 1999, a TEA analysis of the erasure patterns on student answer sheets identified 11 districts with one or more schools with questionable results over a period of three years. Based on that data, TEA demanded that all 11 launch investigations. Four concluded there had been cheating by teachers.

Districts on the Caveon list have been told the grade level and subject area in question and what type of statistical anomalies Caveon found.

But they haven’t been told other crucial facts. How many students had answer sheets identical to their neighbors? Which students made unlikely gains on the test? Which patterns of answers are suspicious?

“We don’t know the parameters that would cause us to be flagged,” said Joe Miniscalco, McKinney’s senior director of secondary education. “Is it two tests? 200 tests?”

Dr. Barnes said her agency does not plan to give all districts that extra information. “I do believe districts already have the information they would need,” she said.

In any case, accurate investigations will be hard at this late date. The report examines scores on a test given more than a year ago. TEA officials said they had draft copies of the report as early as last fall but did not send findings to districts until a few days ago.

By then, most 11th-graders who might have cheated had already graduated.

Cheating common

Teenagers cheating on tests is nothing new.

In 2004, researcher Michael Josephson surveyed nearly 15,000 American high school students and asked whether they had cheated on a test in the previous year. Sixty-two percent said they had – roughly the same number who said they had had at least one beer over the same time span.

Researchers report that public school systems historically have not been particularly interested in uncovering cheating by students or teachers. Don McCabe, a Rutgers University professor who has studied cheating for 15 years, often surveys high school students on cheating. But when he approaches a public school, he usually runs into roadblocks.

“They don’t want to know their students are cheating,” he said. “They don’t want the information, because then they have to deal with it.”

Devin Gustafson, the Seagoville valedictorian, said he heard a number of his fellow students talking about cheating on the 11th-grade TAKS test. An example: “One girl, she snuck her cellphone into the test and was text messaging some of her friends to get answers,” he said. “She said she only got one or two answers because it was too hard.”

He said he didn’t cheat, but if he had wanted to, it wouldn’t have been hard. “I definitely could have. A couple of times, the teacher left the room and all you would have had to do is turn around and ask somebody for the answer.”

Matthew Ramirez, who will be a senior at Skyline High School this fall, said it was easy for students to cheat there. Students who have to turn in their cellphones on test day, he said, are allowed to take them back after lunch – even if they haven’t completed the test. “It’s not hard to cheat,” he said.

Researchers say school systems and state officials don’t take their policing responsibilities seriously.

“It’s making a mockery of the whole system,” Dr. McCabe said. “You invest a lot of taxpayer money and a lot of teacher and student time in a test. And there’s evidence there’s a problem with the test. And they’re not going to do anything about it? They’re just going to say, ‘Oh, it’s just statistics; you can’t trust that’?

“It’s just going to get worse.”

Signs of cheating at 114 area schools; State asks campuses to check ’05 TAKS scores that raised suspicions

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

A state-sponsored analysis has flagged 114 North Texas schools as having suspicious scores on the 2005 TAKS test – scores that could suggest cheating by students or teachers.

Dallas, the area’s largest district, led the way with 39 schools. Plano ISD, with nine schools on the list, had the area’s second-highest total. Fort Worth ISD had seven, the Lewisville and Richardson school districts each had six, and McKinney ISD had five. Five charter schools also made the list.

Texas Education Agency officials are quick to point out that inclusion on the list is not conclusive evidence that cheating occurred.

“We’re not pointing a finger,” said Shirley Neeley, the state education commissioner. “We’re just saying, ‘Folks, once again it’s been pointed out there may be some testing irregularities.’ We’re asking them to just double-check.”

The analysis was performed by a Utah company named Caveon. Statewide, it found 609 schools with suspect scores.

Caveon flagged schools for review if their scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills showed certain characteristics, then put them into one of four categories:

• Schools where students had extreme, statistically unlikely one-year gains in test scores.

• Schools where students answered questions in unusual patterns – for instance, getting all the easy questions wrong and the harder questions right.

• Schools where test documents had an unusual number of wrong answers erased and replaced with correct ones.

• Schools where large numbers of students had identical or virtually identical answers – suggesting they may have copied answers from one another.

It was that fourth category that tripped up the most schools, particularly in lower-income areas. For example, of the 39 Dallas schools flagged, 32 had groups of unusually similar answer sheets.

“We are always reviewing our processes for test security and seeing what we can improve,” Dallas ISD spokesman Donald Claxton said.

In contrast, schools that had unusually large test-score gains were more likely to be in the suburbs – including in traditionally high-performing districts like Highland Park and Carroll.

“It’s kind of like the old axiom, ‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ ” said Neil Wellman, director of assessment for Lewisville ISD. Five of that district’s six flagged schools showed unusual gains, but Dr. Wellman said they were earned honestly.

“We can explain those gains: We just did a lot of teaching,” he said.

A letter from Ms. Neeley dated May 31 notified school districts if their campuses were on the list. The letter asked districts to perform “any investigations you deem necessary” but stressed that factors other than cheating could be at work.

TEA hired Caveon last summer after a series of Dallas Morning News stories found evidence of educator-led cheating in many Texas schools. Later investigations found proof of cheating in the Dallas, Houston and Wilmer-Hutchins school districts. Wilmer-Hutchins will be shut down permanently later this month as a result of the cheating there.

State’s No Child changes blocked; U.S. rejects plan to boost scores by cutting 10% of students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Texas officials have tried to artificially boost test scores by eliminating 10 percent of the state’s students from the No Child Left Behind accountability system – including many of the state’s most disadvantaged children.

But federal authorities quietly blocked the attempt last month – along with three other proposed changes that would have improved the appearance, if not the reality, of Texas schools’ performance.

It’s the latest step in the continuing dance between the U.S. Department of Education and states seeking to make life easier for their schools.

“We have this race-to-the-bottom problem,” said Kevin Carey, a researcher at the Education Sector think tank who has studied how states negotiate with the federal government. “One state comes up with a particular wrinkle that has the effect of reducing pressure on schools to achieve. Other states notice it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, can we do that too?’ ”

Under the No Child Left Behind law, American schools are evaluated each year on whether they have made “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP. Schools that don’t make adequate progress for several years – usually because of low test scores – can lose federal funds or be shut down.

But states are allowed some flexibility in how their schools are judged.

States regularly propose new statistical methods for increasing the number of schools making adequate yearly progress, and it’s up to federal officials to approve or reject them.

Calendar rule

The changes Texas proposed are complex, but together they would have allowed hundreds of low-scoring campuses to get off of the federal list of failing schools.

“We tried to look comprehensively at what had been approved for other states to see if Texas could take advantage of those as well,” said Criss Cloudt, the associate commissioner for accountability at the Texas Education Agency.

TEA requested the changes in an 11-page letter to the Department of Education sent Feb. 1. The most sweeping was a change in the way a school would determine whether a student’s scores counted in its passing rates.

Currently, students’ scores on the spring Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests count only if they were enrolled at the school on the last Friday of the previous October. That’s the day Texas has long compiled its official enrollment count.

The idea is to avoid penalizing schools for the performance of students who arrive in a school only a few weeks before test day.

But TEA wanted to expand that protection and proposed counting students scores only if they had been enrolled in the same school district a year earlier.

In other words, a student who moved to Dallas in June and attended a local school the entire school year would still not be counted in that school’s scores the following spring.

The change would have boosted schools’ showings because students whose families move around a lot tend to have lower academic performance than those with more stable home lives.

Katrina evacuees

The state estimated that, had the rule been in place last year, 90 Texas schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress would have been saved from that fate. Because of the way adequate yearly progress is calculated, the rule would also have allowed hundreds more schools to avoid being judged on the scores of minority subgroups.

TEA leaders argued that other states have been allowed similar calendar arrangements. But federal officials said Texas’ request went too far because it would eliminate one out of every 10 Texas students from the school-rating process and disproportionately affect the disadvantaged.

“What they submitted to us would result in the exclusion of more students,” said Catherine Freeman, a senior policy adviser at the Department of Education. “We obviously don’t look favorably upon that.”

Even though some other states have had a similar calendar approved, each state is evaluated individually for the impact a proposed rule would have on test results, she said.

Dr. Cloudt said the impetus behind the proposal was to find a way to exclude Hurricane Katrina evacuees from the testing rolls of Texas schools. But the state’s proposal makes no mention of the hurricane and would have excluded many more Texas natives than hurricane evacuees.

The federal government has since approved a separate plan to exclude all Katrina evacuees from AYP performance ratings this year.

‘Safe harbor’ changes

Along with the calendar proposal, Texas also requested several changes in what’s called the “safe harbor” process. That’s a provision in No Child Left Behind meant to protect schools that have low scores but are improving rapidly. TEA wanted to give schools more ways to argue that their scores are improving.

One, called a “matched profile analysis,” would have let schools boost their test scores if the racial composition of their students had changed in the previous year.

Another change would have allowed schools with low scores to qualify if those scores fell within a “confidence interval” – in other words, if there was a decent chance the school could have scored better if its students were tested again.

Federal officials rejected them all.

In a letter to state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, Assistant Education Secretary Henry Johnson wrote that the federal department “questions the validity and methodology” of the racial-composition proposal and that the use of confidence intervals was unnecessary.

He also questioned the state’s proposed use of a particular formula in calculating scores because “the formula design is more likely than other possible formulas to accept that a school or district had made AYP.”

Special ed rule

Texas used several of those proposed safe-harbor provisions last year – including racial matching and confidence intervals. Dr. Cloudt said they will now stop using them.

Finally, the Department of Education also rejected Texas’ request to count students as “special education” for up to two years after they stop receiving special-education services. That would boost special-education scores substantially in many schools.

Each of the four major rejected changes would have saved between 66 and 90 Texas schools from missing AYP in 2005. In all, they could have flipped the results of 303 of the 1,152 failing schools in Texas last year – although it’s likely that some of those schools would have been helped by more than one of the changes. Last year, 15 percent of Texas schools failed to make adequate yearly progress.

Dr. Freeman said the Department of Education is seeing a small boom in the number of states seeking changes like the ones Texas proposed.

“They’re definitely looking for ways to reduce the number of schools to be identified as missing AYP,” she said.