TAKS inquiry gets a boost; TEA adds investigators and task force for cheating probe

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Calling the prevention of cheating “our highest priority,” the Texas Education Agency is tripling its number of investigators and preparing inquiries of the schools where test scores are the most suspicious.

The agency will also create an independent task force to oversee the investigations, which will begin in September. But it’s still unknown how many schools will be investigated.

“The Texas Education Agency is taking this matter very seriously,” Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley wrote in a letter to all district superintendents Friday.

The moves are in response to a report released in May by Caveon, a Utah test-security firm. TEA hired Caveon to analyze scores on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and determine if any students or educators were cheating.

Caveon flagged more than 600 schools for a variety of suspect test patterns: students who seemed to get too smart too fast, score sheets with too many erasures or classrooms where too many students had suspiciously similar answers.

“I think we have to restore the public’s faith in our testing system,” Dr. Neeley said in an interview.

TEA now employs five investigators who look into allegations of testing improprieties.

That’s up from the three the agency had before a series of stories by The Dallas Morning News revealed evidence of cheating in Texas schools. With the new increase, there will be 15 investigators.

The members of the task force will be announced next week, Dr. Neeley said. They will include educators and business people, she said, and will be given a substantial say in determining how investigations proceed.

“We’ll propose things to them, but they may want to do things differently,” she said. “These are going to be people highly respected in the community.”

The agency has not determined how it will choose which schools to investigate. But Dr. Neeley hinted that the schools flagged for outsized gains in test scores may be under less scrutiny than those flagged for other reasons.

“I know how hard every school in the state works to get those gains, so I know schools can explain those gains,” she said. “But the other anomalies are very difficult to explain.”

Agency officials are discussing with Caveon how best to pick schools. The company will soon analyze the state’s 2006 test scores, which could provide confirming evidence of cheating in some schools. TEA did not have a full list of the suspicious schools until this week, after a News story showed it was missing more than 160 schools that Caveon had flagged.

“We need to prioritize that list,” agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.

But agency officials acknowledged the task of investigating would be difficult. Cheating is alleged to have occurred in the spring of 2005. By the time investigations begin, the trail will have been cold for 17 months.

“I don’t think these investigations will be quick,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “There will be interviews with many, many people.”

The task force will first meet in late August, with the investigations to begin shortly thereafter. It’s unclear how long the investigations will take to complete. Ms. Ratcliffe said that it would probably take months, meaning it could be Christmas before cases are closed.

The agency’s most recent large-scale investigation was in Wilmer-Hutchins, the troubled school district in southern Dallas County. After a series of News stories in November 2004 showing evidence of cheating in the district’s elementary schools, TEA launched an on-site investigation. It took four months.

Friday’s letter to superintendents also says TEA will create a formal system for sending state monitors to oversee testing in suspect schools. The state has sent in monitors on rare occasions before, Ms. Ratcliffe said, but only on an ad hoc basis.

The most noted of those occasions was in Wilmer-Hutchins, in spring 2005. TEA sent more than 70 monitors to prevent cheating from occurring again. The district’s test scores plummeted as a result. The district has since been shut down.

Luce, a ‘giant in education circles,’ leaving federal post; Dallas lawyer cites health reasons, will return to North Texas

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 11A

Tom Luce, the Dallas attorney who has been one of the prime movers in state and national education reform for the last two decades, is stepping down from his federal post for health reasons.

“It has probably been the most rewarding experience of my life,” Mr. Luce, 66, said yesterday. “I didn’t want to step down, but it’s something I need to take care of.”

Mr. Luce had been the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development for the past year. He said he has a pain disorder that requires physical therapy three or four days a week.

“I’ve found Washington be a difficult place to take care of your health,” he said. “I’ve cancelled therapy so many times. The demands are 24/7.”

Mr. Luce is one of a number of Texans who have had substantial sway over federal education policy during the Bush administration. Sandy Kress, the Austin attorney and former Dallas school board president, was a prime architect of the No Child Left Behind law.

Former Houston superintendent Rod Paige served as education secretary in the first Bush term. Current education secretary Margaret Spellings has been a Bush education advisor since his days as governor.

“Tom Luce has spent a lifetime putting kids first, and his service to the Department of Education has been no exception,” she said in a statement Tuesday.

Mr. Luce would be on anyone’s short list of the most influential figures in Texas public education for the past two decades.

“He’s been a giant in education circles,” said Jim Nelson, the former state education commissioner.

Mr. Luce was chief of staff of the state task force, headed by Ross Perot, that studied Texas schools and advocated a package of radical reforms in 1984 – including more money for low-wealth schools, higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, and “no pass, no play,” the policy that limited extracurricular activities to students with passing grades.

Mr. Luce coordinated the team of Perot-hired lobbyists who pushed the reforms through a special session of the Legislature. The bill that resulted, House Bill 72, is now considered the beginning of the modern standards movement in Texas.

His only race for political office came in 1990, when he sought the Republican nomination for governor on a platform that focused primarily on schools.

In 1994, after writing a book on education reform, he launched Just For The Kids, an Austin-based non-profit which aimed to gather and analyze information on what makes some schools work and others fail. It was later merged into the National Center for Educational Accountability, which now analyzes testing and other data for dozens of states and the federal government.

“He’s been a very strong advocate for high standards, not just minimum standards,” said Chrys Dougherty, who is the group’s director of research and has known Mr. Luce since the early 1990s. “He believes all students can learn, not just advantaged ones.”

Mr. Luce said he regrets departing Washington barely a year after Ms. Spellings – an old friend from Texas – picked him for the newly designed federal position, which coordinates the department’s policy-making process. But he said his disorder, which he stressed was not life threatening, forced his hand.

He will return to Dallas on September 1, but will continue to serve as a part-time advisor to Ms. Spellings. He said he will continue to work on integrating school data into the department’s decision-making process.

“Ten years ago, when you talked to state people about data, their eyes glazed over,” he said. “But today you have everybody saying ‘We need data-driven decisions, we need more data on individual students.’ It’s a different world.”

No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of the Bush education agenda, will be up for reauthorization next year, and many expect a fight in Congress over the new law’s contents. But Mr. Luce said he has been pleasantly surprised during his time in Washington at the amount of bipartisan agreement.

“There really is almost total unanimity on the broad pillars of No Child Left Behind,” he said. “People quibble from time to time about the details, but people are behind the pillars.”

TEA wants full list of suspect schools; But expanded inquiry into TAKS cheating not certain, state says

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Reversing course, the Texas Education Agency said Tuesday that it wants a complete list of schools with suspicious scores on last year’s state exams. But officials made no promises to investigate those additional campuses.

Officials said Tuesday they have asked for the names of all schools that were flagged as suspect by Caveon, a Utah test-security company. The agency hired Caveon to look for evidence of possible cheating on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

On Sunday, The Dallas Morning News reported that the TEA’s list of suspected cheaters left off at least 167 schools that Caveon had flagged. Neither the TEA nor the schools knew which campuses they were.

Last week, agency officials said they did not ask Caveon for the names of the additional schools because they did not consider them worthy of investigation. That’s because Caveon used a different type of analysis to identify the additional schools.

“I think that over the weekend, people thought about the situation and just realized we need the complete list,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman.

“And whether we take further action – we’ll have to decide once we see that list.”

Schools’ needs

Jim Nelson, outgoing superintendent of the Richardson Independent School District, said schools need to know whether they’re on Caveon’s list. They also need to understand why they were flagged as having potential problems.

“I think if we’re going to be able to conduct investigations locally, we have to have all the information used to make their findings,” Mr. Nelson said.

He said more data would be particularly important for the difficult task of investigating alleged cheating from over a year ago. “The only way you can check is to have as much data as you can,” Mr. Nelson said. “If you’re looking for specific acts from that long ago, I think it’s going to be very difficult.”

The analysis

In its analysis, Caveon looked for unusual test scores at the classroom and school levels. While schoolwide anomalies involve larger numbers of students, they can also be triggered by a smaller percentage of students with suspect scores.

Robert Scott, the TEA’s chief deputy commissioner, said he believed the schoolwide problems were less egregious than the classroom-level anomalies Caveon found.

“It’s like looking for a problem citywide or doing it by looking in a specific ZIP code,” he said. “The classroom-based list is more focused.”

Mr. Scott said the agency is determining how best to investigate some of the schools Caveon identified. A plan should be announced by the end of this week, he said.

State incentives

The state’s first priority will be 14 schools that are supposed to receive $60,000 to $220,000 each for improved test scores under a new incentive plan of Gov. Rick Perry’s. Other schools will also be investigated, although the agency has not announced how many.

The agency still has not requested detailed information on what suspicious behavior Caveon found in each of the schools it flagged. “I don’t think we’re far enough in our investigation to warrant that,” Mr. Scott said.

Caveon’s two analyses found 609 schools and 702 classrooms with unusual scores. State officials originally did not plan to identify the schools or tell them they had suspicious scores.

Shifting response

But the TEA released a list in early June, after The News and other newspapers requested it. That list identified only schools with suspicious classroom scores.

Once the list came out, the agency said it planned only a limited investigation into some of the flagged schools where other testing violations had already been reported.

But after media reported the TEA’s plan, the agency announced it would do a more thorough investigation.

TEA officials said Tuesday that the search for score anomalies is a new kind of analysis for the agency, so they’re learning along the way.

“We are having to feel our way along on this,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “The more we think about it, the more questions that arise.”

State seems to have had right to see cheat data; Contract with Caveon appears to grant info superintendents want

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 12A

Some Texas superintendents have complained that state officials haven’t given them enough information to investigate their schools’ appearance on Caveon’s list of schools with suspicious TAKS scores.

State officials say that’s because they don’t have the information themselves.

But Caveon’s contract to analyze Texas’ test scores seems to give state officials substantial access to the data necessary to investigate potential cheating.

“Consultant agrees that all Works are, upon creation, works made for hire and the sole property of TEA,” states the contract, obtained by The Dallas Morning News. “Consultant hereby assigns to TEA all worldwide ownership rights, including the Intellectual Property Rights, in the Works, without the necessity of any further consideration.”

Caveon has said its methods and algorithms are proprietary and can’t be shared with the TEA or the public. But the contract pledges to provide the TEA with substantially more data than Caveon has apparently turned over.

It promises “summary and detailed results” from its analysis, including detailed information on “the incidence of test fraud/theft by classroom and school” and “cheating and piracy activity in individual examinees.”

When asked about the contract language, the state’s director of assessment, Lisa Chandler, responded via e-mail. She referred The News to a legal filing by attorneys for Pearson – the company that runs Texas’ testing programs – in an open-records dispute before the state attorney general’s office. That document argues that the “TEA has no carte blanche right to the disputed information.” It is unclear whether the TEA agrees with that assessment.

To date, the TEA has been provided with only a partial list of the classrooms and schools where Caveon found potential problems. The agency has no detailed information on what, exactly, was suspicious about those classrooms. It also has no data on individual students.

But it may be hard to obtain that information now. Caveon’s contract to analyze the state’s test scores expired in February, according to documents. Earlier this month, a Caveon vice president said his company had completed all of its obligations to the TEA and that, should the agency want more data, a new contract would likely be necessary.

In the version of the contract released to The News, the cost of Caveon’s analysis is redacted. A note from Pearson states that the “Payment Terms are Confidential and Proprietary to NCS Pearson, Inc.”

The TEA previously stated that it paid more than $500,000 for Caveon’s analysis. At this point, spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said, it is unclear how much of the agency’s money was spent on it.

Not all suspect schools on list; Exclusive: Firm flagged 167 more on TAKS, but state not looking into it

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

Page 1A

The list of schools suspected of cheating is longer than Texas education officials have reported – and those officials say they aren’t interested in tracking down the latest suspects.

A Dallas Morning News analysis has found that at least 167 unidentified schools were flagged as potential cheaters by Caveon, the company Texas hired to hunt for TAKS cheaters. That’s in addition to the 442 schools named by state officials. None of the other schools have been notified that they are on the list.

Texas Education Agency officials say they don’t know which schools they are – and they have no plans to find out.

“The only list of schools we have is the list that has been made public,” said TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman. “That’s the list we plan to work with.”

Superintendents with schools that have been named have complained that the TEA hasn’t given them all the information they need to investigate Caveon’s findings. But at least they know their scores are suspicious.

“That is so grossly unfair,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “If you’re going to accuse someone of cheating, look them in the eye and do it.”

Caveon, a Utah-based data-analysis company, was hired by Texas officials last year to examine the students’ 2005 scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

That followed a series of stories by The News that found evidence of cheating on the TAKS in schools throughout the state.

The News discovered the missing schools when analyzing data in one of the appendixes of Caveon’s May report to the TEA. Caveon withholds many of the details of how it performs its analysis, citing proprietary reasons. But in the appendix, the company outlines what it found in one high school where it suspects cheating on the math TAKS.

The report doesn’t identify the school by name and lists its students only as anonymous ID numbers. But The News was able to determine that the school is Westbury High School in Houston by matching the student scores to state data. Westbury is the only school in Texas that had student scores matching the data in the appendix.

Houston school officials declined to comment, as did a Caveon spokesman.

Westbury had 1,431 students take the math TAKS in 2005. Of those, 185 had answer sheets Caveon considered suspiciously similar to at least one other student’s. Caveon said the chance of that happening at random was less than 1 in 4 million million billion billion billion. That’s a 1 with 40 zeroes after it.

The analysis also found several groups of Westbury students who had identical answer sheets – even getting all their unlikely wrong answers wrong in exactly the same way. Caveon also found an unusually high level of erasures at Westbury.

One Westbury junior – known only as No. 3561511 in the report – made a seemingly miraculous gain. As a sophomore, she performed very poorly on the math TAKS, outscoring only about 20 percent of the state’s test takers. But as a junior, her score zoomed up – beating that of about 73 percent of Texas students.

No. 3561511 was helped by the 23 wrong answers on her answer sheet that were erased and replaced with correct answers. She ended up with an answer sheet identical to those of three of her peers and almost identical to three others.

In its report, Caveon is confident that there was wrongdoing at Westbury. “It appears likely that there are instances of testing irregularities at this school,” it states. Caveon also writes that of all the Texas schools where it found math irregularities, Westbury was the seventh-most suspicious.

But the TEA never told Houston officials that Westbury’s math scores were suspicious. That’s because TEA officials didn’t know themselves.

Dual analyses

The core of the confusion is that Caveon actually performed two different but complementary analyses of the state’s test scores. One looked for suspicious test scores in each classroom. The other looked for problems throughout a school.

Both analyses examined the same scores. But they had different standards for how much suspicious activity it took for a classroom or school to be flagged.

Because classrooms have fewer students than whole schools, it takes a higher incidence of suspicious activity for a classroom to be flagged than for an entire school.

For example, imagine a classroom with only 10 students. If two of those students had scores Caveon considered suspect – 20 percent of the total – that probably wouldn’t be enough for the classroom to be flagged as suspicious. That’s because, when dealing with such small numbers, two strange test scores could result from random chance or “noise” in the data.

But imagine a school with 1,000 students. If 200 of those students had suspicious scores – still 20 percent of the total – that would in many cases be enough for Caveon to declare the school’s performance suspect. Statistically, it is less likely that 200 strange scores would be attributable to chance.

As a result, Caveon was more likely to flag an entire school with strange scores than a classroom. Of the 73,793 classrooms whose scores it analyzed, the company flagged 702 – about 1 percent. But Caveon flagged 609 of the 7,112 schools it analyzed – more than 8 percent.

Short list explained

The problem is that the list of 442 suspect schools that the TEA distributed to districts includes only the schools that had classrooms flagged – not those flagged as an entire campus.

There is probably some overlap between the two lists. For example, in the case of Westbury High School, Houston officials have been told that there was potential cheating on the science and social studies tests in 11th-grade classrooms. But the TEA never informed them about the problems Caveon found schoolwide in the math test results.

At a minimum, 167 schools were flagged by Caveon as possible cheaters and still have no idea. According to the Caveon report, the number of those schools could be as high as 394.

Lisa Chandler, the state’s director of assessment, responded to questions about the missing list via e-mail. She said the state didn’t obtain the list of schools Caveon considered suspicious because “the list based on the classrooms seemed to be the most useful for districts to use in following up the results.”

She cites a section of the Caveon report that suggests the suspicious classroom scores may be a good place to begin investigations. “That is, those schools where exceptions were detected in multiple classrooms might be investigated first,” the report states.

But the TEA has already committed to investigate a number of schools regardless of how many classrooms were flagged. Last month, it announced plans to investigate 14 schools on the Caveon list that were also due cash bonuses from the state for their outstanding test scores.

The agency doesn’t know whether any other schools on the bonus list might have been flagged by Caveon’s schoolwide analysis. And it has no plans to find out which schools are on the list or how egregious their possible cheating might have been.

That means that even schools with what Caveon considers highly suspicious scores won’t be identified or investigated.

“The schools that TEA intends to address would be the ones where classrooms were flagged in the list that’s been provided,” Ms. Marchman said.

Column: Slim raises won’t keep teachers here for long

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

When Dan Hamermesh heard that Northwest ISD was paying rookie teachers $44,159, he was thrilled. “That’s phenomenal! In Texas? I’m happy to hear it.”

But within 30 seconds, he’d switched gears: “That’s just pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. It’s exactly wrong.”

What was he talking about? Who is Dan Hamermesh? And why does he think that well-meaning North Texas school districts are making choices that will drive promising teachers out of the profession?

He’s a renowned labor economist and professor at the University of Texas. He studies, among other things, the ways in which wages impact the decisions of employers and employees.

His concern is that school districts have poured millions of dollars into raising the salaries of starting teachers – but haven’t done nearly enough for the more experienced. The result is that teacher salaries start high, but barely move after that.

“A big increase at the low level may look impressive – that’s the number that gets published in the newspaper,” he told me last week. “But who’s going to wind up staying after the first few years?”

Here’s what he means. When Northwest ISD announced its new starting salary – apparently the highest in Texas history – we splashed it on the front page. After all, $44,159 is an awfully nice salary for a 22-year-old fresh out of college.

But how much does, say, a 27-year-old who’s been teaching five years get paid in Northwest? According to the district’s salary schedule, $45,559 – barely a smidge above the base.

And an experienced 10-year veteran? Try $46,961.

I’m not saying those are bad salaries. (They’re more than a lot of newspaper reporters earn, for instance.) But the slope of increase as a teacher gains experience is awfully flat. Show me another profession where 10 years of experience only earns you an extra $2,800 in pay.

(That’s about half a percent a year.)

I don’t want to pick on Northwest ISD. The same sort of pattern shows up in just about every North Texas school district. And they’re all out of whack with the rest of the country.

A federal survey a few years ago found that 10 years of experience usually earned an American teacher about $9,600 extra in salary.

I spot-checked a dozen or so districts around the country, and that sounds about right. In San Jose, 10 years’ experience is worth an extra $16,700. In Baltimore, $13,900. On the low side, those 10 years were worth only $6,200 in Tampa and $8,600 in Atlanta.

That’s Dr. Hamermesh’s worry. Young teachers might be eager to sign up for a high initial salary. But after a few years – right around the point when they actually learn how to teach – they’ll realize they’re staring at a long line of raises that look like rounding errors. Maybe it’ll inspire some of them to grab the brass ring and become principals. But it’ll push others out the door.

“You’re giving them all the incentives to start there and none to stay there,” he said.

Texas schools already lose around 40 percent of teachers in the first three years of their careers anyway. Sometimes it’s because women want to quit working and start a family. Sometimes it’s just because teachers get tired of wrangling with ornery children. Molasses-slow raises could give them another reason.

But my problem with a flat salary schedule isn’t just about teacher retention. Paying all teachers roughly the same implies that they are roughly the same. For decades, teacher groups have pushed for uniformity in how teachers are compensated – no matter how varied the skill levels they require.

It’s a lot harder to find a good AP physics teacher than an elementary school P.E. teacher. But they get paid the same.

It’s a lot harder to find a good bilingual special-education teacher than a middle-school history teacher. But, in a lot of districts, they get paid the same.

Without a sensible plan to pay teachers based on their skill, experience is the closest surrogate to quality most districts have to work with. Veteran teachers are, on average, better than rookies, and it makes sense to pay them more. But now even that differential is going away.

It’s great to see salaries rising for teachers fresh out of college. But if districts have some money to spend on teachers, they should think hard about dumping it all on 22-year-olds.

You don’t just want to snag ’em. You want to keep ’em around for a while.

Districts on TAKS cheat list in dark; State didn’t seek data on why firm flagged schools, preventing investigation

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

When he saw that six Richardson schools were on the state’s list of potential TAKS cheaters, Superintendent Jim Nelson wanted to investigate. But to do so, he needed to know how Caveon – the company that built the list – did its work.

He e-mailed state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, whose agency paid Caveon to do the analysis: “Commissioner, how do I get detailed information as to how Caveon reached their conclusions? All we got were the conclusions.”

He added, according to documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News: “Anger and frustration aimed at the agency is palpable. I want to help, but we must have access to their analysis.” Without those details, the Texas Education Agency is doing “nothing more than a hit and run,” he said.

Mr. Nelson and other Texas educators have tried to get the information they think they need to clear their schools’ names. But the TEA hasn’t been able to give it to them. That’s because agency officials never got the data themselves.

As a result, few, if any, thorough cheating investigations have begun – nearly two months after Caveon determined that 609 schools had suspicious test scores.

As Frisco Superintendent Rick Reedy wrote in a statement on the district’s Web site: “We did take the report seriously, and we did try to investigate the findings … without much luck.”

TEA officials say they never wanted the findings from the $500,000 Caveon analysis to lead to large-scale investigations. The agency expected the analysis to be the first part of a multiyear study that might improve test security down the line.

But faced with anxious superintendents and political leaders, the agency has been moved to action. Now it’s scrambling to figure out how far, exactly, it’s willing to pursue suspected cheaters.

Dr. Neeley counsels patience. “We just need more information,” she said.

Perhaps Dr. Neeley summed up the agency’s frustration over reaction to the Caveon list best in one of her e-mail replies to Mr. Nelson: “I am livid; this whole thing has totally gotten out of hand.”

Stories brought probe

The TEA brought in Utah-based Caveon last year after a series of Dallas Morning News stories uncovered educator-led cheating in a number of Texas schools.

Caveon was supposed to analyze 2005 scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills to look for evidence of cheating by students or educators. That could include inexplicable jumps in student test scores, duplicate answer sheets or suspicious patterns in student answers.

But the problems identified for the 609 schools aren’t all the same. Some had TAKS results that seem beyond the pale – like the one where the answer sheets of 89 of a classroom’s 91 students were virtually identical. Caveon flagged other schools for having only a few students with suspiciously similar answer patterns.

The problem is that schools don’t know which group they fall in – and for now, there’s no way for them to find out.

When the TEA hired Caveon, it didn’t ask the company to provide the detailed data necessary for an investigation. Such data could say, for example, which students’ answer sheets at a given school were suspect and why they were flagged. The data could also indicate which students had duplicate answer sheets suggesting copying and which score gains were suspicious.

That’s the kind of information that superintendents say they want.

“We cannot get enough information or data from Caveon to conduct any kind of investigation – if in fact one is even warranted,” Mr. Nelson wrote via e-mail last week from Ireland, where he was vacationing. “My schools on the list are relatively high-performing, so I must admit to being very skeptical of their analysis.”

The lack of supporting data from the TEA is particularly noteworthy because Dr. Neeley, in a letter to superintendents, told districts to “conduct any investigations you deem necessary.”

In their e-mail conversation, which took place on June 13, Dr. Neeley told Mr. Nelson that Caveon’s methods of detecting cheaters are proprietary and, thus, couldn’t be shared with districts.

Mr. Nelson expressed disbelief: “That really causes a problem. It’s like Alice in Wonderland. ‘Our analysis shows you may have cheated, but we won’t show you how the analysis is done.’ Crazy.”

A Caveon official told The News that the company was never asked to provide the detailed data.

“What we furnished to Texas was exactly what was asked for,” said Don Sorensen, Caveon’s vice president of marketing. The additional information could be provided, he said, but probably would cost the agency more. “If they want further detail, that would require a new contract.”

To this point, the TEA hasn’t formally requested the information, Mr. Sorensen said.

“If we can, TEA will get that data,” Dr. Neeley said. She indicated there may have been confusion over how much of Caveon’s data is proprietary.

To Mr. Nelson, she wrote last month: “Caveon owns the software – it is proprietary. In other words, we do NOT have access to the programs that generate the results.”

But Mr. Sorensen said that while Caveon’s specific algorithms are proprietary, the classroom- and student-level detail they produce would be available.

The difficulty in obtaining the information extends beyond the TEA to the company that administers the TAKS test for the state. When one San Antonio-area principal called Caveon last month to seek more information about why his school was on the list, his request was forwarded to Walter Sherwood, who heads the Texas assessment contract at the testing company Pearson. (Caveon is a subcontractor to Pearson.)

“No information was provided to this person, and I’ve instructed Caveon not to respond to this message or any others that they receive,” Mr. Sherwood wrote in an e-mail to TEA officials.

Dr. Neeley, a former superintendent in suburban Houston, said she understands the frustrations of school districts having trouble investigating without the data. “I agree with them 100 percent,” she said Friday. She said districts and the public should be patient while the TEA formulates a plan of action.

“Everybody should just take a chill pill,” she said.

A stronger pursuit

One district, Conroe ISD outside Houston, has even hired an attorney to pursue testing records that the TEA has not provided. Three Conroe high schools landed on the Caveon list, all for unusual test gains. One is The Woodlands High School, one of the state’s wealthiest.

After the district filed an open records request seeking some of the data, TEA attorneys appealed to the state attorney general’s office, arguing that the agency shouldn’t have to provide the information.

Conroe Superintendent Don Stockton didn’t respond to several calls from The News. But in an interview with a Conroe newspaper, he said the TEA has told him the allegations aren’t worth investigating.

“Our scores are not alarming because TEA has told us there’s nothing to be alarmed about,” he told The Courier of Montgomery County.

That’s the approach the TEA has taken with many of the suburban schools that Caveon said had unusually large gains. Outsize gains were one of the four “flags” that the Caveon analysis assigned to the 609 schools. It is also the flag most commonly assigned to well-off suburban high schools, including in Richardson and Frisco.

Dr. Neeley said those scores – which Caveon considers statistically unlikely to have occurred naturally – are instead indications of hard work by educators.

“I’m not trying to say it should be a badge of valor to be on that list, but every superintendent should be able to explain why those student gains were so good,” she said in the interview Friday. “As much effort as we concentrate on closing the achievement gap, I would be disappointed if we didn’t have significant gains.”

Dr. Neeley said the wealthy districts on the list – including many considering self-investigations – are unlikely to cheat.

“You look at Highland Park, Richardson, Eanes,” she said, naming some of the state’s wealthiest districts in the Dallas and Austin areas. “Do they have to cheat to have good scores? I gave a talk in Eanes not long ago and said, ‘Do you people think Westlake High School had to cheat to get good scores?'”

One of Dr. Neeley’s top deputies, Susan Barnes, said schools that think they need to investigate possible cheating could instead try to figure out how their teachers and administrators did their jobs so effectively.

“They can ask, ‘What did we do in our district that helped our students learn so well?'” said Dr. Barnes, associate commissioner for standards and programs. “They could certainly say, ‘Here are some of the reasons our students did such a good job on their assessment.'”

But the TEA is explaining away score gains without any idea how unusual or widespread those gains may be. State officials don’t know if a school’s Caveon flag was caused by 10 students with unusually big score gains – or 100.

Dr. Neeley has maintained that cheating on state tests is rare and that some in the media, including The News, and the public have overreacted.

As she put it in her e-mail exchange with Mr. Nelson, himself a former state education commissioner: “Am so sorry about all the anguish this has caused, because the bottom line is we are being punished for working hard and doing a good job to close the achievement gap.”

Bonuses change context

Agency officials received draft versions of Caveon’s findings last fall but didn’t pursue any investigations – even though the study made it clear that some of the high school seniors who graduated this May cheated on state tests required for graduation.

The initial plan was to gather several years’ worth of data before judging whether some schools might house improper behavior.

When the Caveon list was released in May, TEA officials said it would let districts decide whether to investigate themselves. But that changed when it became clear that 14 schools on the list were due state bonuses because of their high test scores.

Now the agency plans to investigate all 14 of those schools, plus an uncertain number of others. “We need to figure out where to draw the line,” Dr. Neeley said. Officials said those decisions should be made within a month.

Dr. Neeley said TEA teams would visit the schools selected for investigation to check for signs of cheating. In addition, an outside appeals panel evaluate the work of the TEA teams.

On-site visits of the sort Dr. Neeley is promising are relatively rare for cheating allegations. The last major such visits were to Wilmer-Hutchins ISD in late 2004 and early 2005. Those visits were prompted by News stories outlining apparent cheating in several district schools.

In the end, the TEA team found that two-thirds of the district’s elementary teachers were helping students improperly.

The agency dissolved the district last month.

“We take this very seriously,” Dr. Neeley said.