Entire TAKS list faces inquiry; TEA: All 699 schools suspected of fraud to see some level of scrutiny

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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All 699 schools suspected of cheating on the TAKS test will face a state investigation, the Texas Education Agency announced Monday.

Sort of. The word “investigation” can have many meanings.

For some schools, investigations could consist of little more than an exchange of letters. It remains to be seen how thorough investigations of 699 schools would be possible, given constraints of time and staffing.

And state officials still have no plans to seek the additional test data that would make a detailed investigation possible. For example, the state still does not know which students have the most suspicious test answer sheets.

“The task force believes strongly that test integrity is really important, so everybody needs to be investigated,” said Olga Garza, coordinator of the commissioner’s task force on test security.

The schools are the subject of state scrutiny because their 2005 scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills were flagged by a test-security firm, Caveon. The company was hired by the TEA last year to look for schools where teachers or students might be cheating on the TAKS.

The agency has set itself an ambitious timetable. It hopes to select which schools will be in “Phase 1″ of its inquiry this week, with investigators heading to their campuses shortly after Labor Day. It hopes to have the meat of those investigations concluded by early October, which will be the next time the test-security task force meets.

Agency officials have not decided how many schools would be in Phase 1, or how many phases there would be, agency spokesman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. She said the schools tackled first would probably be the ones that were flagged the most times in Caveon’s analysis – for example, schools that had suspicious scores in multiple subjects and multiple grades.

Caveon looked for schools with suspicious scores. That could mean that some students had unexpectedly large score gains, or that a group of students in particular classrooms had identical answer sheets.

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley appointed the five-person test-security task force this month to determine how the state should proceed. The group had its first meeting Monday.

Ms. Garza said all 699 schools on Caveon’s list would be investigated. That’s much larger than many agency employees and observers had expected.

But Ms. Ratcliffe said that, for some, the investigation could be limited to a “test security audit.” That would not involve any on-site visits. Instead, the state would check to see whether the school was aware of state test administration policy and had had any violations in recent years.

In some cases, Ms. Garza said, districts might have a good explanation for why a school made the Caveon list. “Maybe some of the districts will be cleared, if there’s a statistical aberration that’s easily explained,” she said. In that case, it might take only a letter from district officials.

Full inquiry for some

Other schools will get a full-scale, on-site investigation. But if their number is large, it is difficult to imagine how the TEA would pull off operations on such a scale.

The agency is hiring more investigators, which would raise their number from five to 15. But even that number could be quickly tied up by just a few significant investigations. Traditionally, on-site investigations have involved sending two or three investigators to a school to conduct interviews with school staff and students.

“We’ll do what we can with what we have,” Ms. Ratcliffe said, adding that the TEA would consider subcontracting some of the work of investigating out to nonagency employees if necessary.

And those investigations take time. The largest in recent memory was in Wilmer-Hutchins, the Dallas County school district that has since closed. It took four months to complete and occupied most of the state’s test-security staff during that time.

Students move on

In addition, because of the 18-month delay in investigating, many students who might have cheated have already graduated and could be difficult to find.

At the October meeting, Ms. Garza said, the task force hopes to have a series of recommendations on how to improve test security – in time to administer portions of the TAKS that month.

Perhaps most important, the state still has not obtained more detailed information from Caveon about what the firm found unusual about each school’s test scores. At this point, almost a year after drafts of Caveon’s report reached the agency, the TEA only knows which broad category of suspicious behavior the company found in a given school or classroom.

Caveon has much more data available. It would detail, for example, which students in a given classroom were suspected of copying answers off of which of their peers. It would outline how many students in a given classroom had suspiciously large score gains, and which ones had unusually high numbers of wrong answers erased and replaced with correct ones.

Caveon officials have said they could make the information available to the TEA, which would seem important to any thorough investigation. But the agency still has not sought it. “We’re using the information we have now,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

Column: ‘Dangerous’ not always unsafe

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Of all the layers of silliness in the No Child Left Behind law, it’s hard to come up with any more poorly thought out than the “persistently dangerous schools” clause.

That’s the part of the law that is supposed to identify which schools are too scary and unsafe for kids to attend. If your school makes the list, it has to give you the chance to transfer to a safer school.

This year, five Texas schools were labeled persistently dangerous. Four are in the Valley, and I’ll admit I don’t know much about them. But the fifth one is a shocker: Cypress Ridge High School in Houston.

Cypress Ridge isn’t some gritty urban school with gangbangers roaming the halls. It’s a middle-class school in the suburbs.

It’s in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the biggest suburban district in the state. The area has a lot of new growth; Cypress Ridge was built only four years ago and already has 3,500 students. Its test scores are usually better than the state average. If you want to imagine a Dallas-area high school for context, Cypress Ridge’s demographics are comparable to Newman Smith High in Carrollton.

So how did Cypress Ridge get labeled “persistently dangerous”? Was there a serial killer on the loose in AP Chemistry?

Nope. Just a few kids snagging pills from Dad’s medicine cabinet.

See, a Texas school gets the dangerous tag for having too many “expellable incidents” over a three-year span. The problem is that “expellable incidents” can mean a lot of things.

A quintuple homicide in math class is an expellable incident. A gang rape on the football field is an expellable incident.

But so is a kid caught with a single joint. Or one caught with a single Xanax pill he doesn’t have a prescription for.

When you have a system that counts Columbine the same way it counts a stray Ritalin pill, you’re going to get strange outcomes.

That’s what happened at Cypress Ridge. A few years ago, the district decided that it was going to be aggressive about asking kids to report each other when they have prescription medication they shouldn’t. And the district, along with local prosecutors, decided to pursue felony charges in each case.

(Having meds without a prescription is normally a misdemeanor. But state law allows it to be raised to a felony if the possession occurs on a school campus.)

So, over three years at Cypress Ridge, 26 students were charged with felonies because they had prescription drugs that belonged to someone else – most often Mom, Dad or a sibling. In 17 of those cases, the kids had only one or two pills, and none of them were accused of dealing.

Those were enough “expellable incidents” to earn Cypress Ridge the label “persistently dangerous.”

Now, I’m not saying popping Adderall like Tic-Tacs is smart. And I’m not sold on the wisdom of giving felony records to a bunch of kids.

But does Cypress Ridge really sound like a “persistently dangerous” school? One so scary that kids have to be given a transfer path to safety?

The basic problem is that every school reports these sorts of incidents differently.

For instance, an audit by the U.S. Department of Education found that in 2003, at Zumwalt Middle School in southern Dallas, two students from other schools came on campus and shot at a Zumwalt teacher during lunch.

We’re talking bullets, not spit balls.

But according to auditors, the incident never got reported to TEA as an “expellable incident.” Zumwalt got to stay off the danger list.

Want an idea of how bad incident reporting is? In 2003 and 2004, TEA named 11 Texas schools as persistently dangerous. All 11 appealed their cases. And TEA eventually agreed to take all 11 off the list because of reporting errors.

There are plenty of schools in Dallas, Houston and elsewhere with serious gang problems. Last year, Dallas ISD’s police reported more than 5,600 criminal incidents on campuses during an eight-month period.

They weren’t all violent, of course. But there’s no way you can convince me there aren’t dozens of Dallas schools more “persistently dangerous” than Cypress Ridge.

District officials in Cypress-Fairbanks are appealing their inclusion on the list. If history is any guide, there’s a good chance they’ll be successful.

But there’s a bigger issue here.

In this age of accountability – when we’re so eager to slap ratings and labels on schools – everything rides on the quality of the data. If systems are fed bad information, they’ll produce dumb results.

Schools get judged on how well they teach their kids. But that assumes that teachers aren’t helping students cheat on state tests. That’s how some Wilmer-Hutchins schools earned “exemplary” ratings while being among the worst schools in the country.

Schools get judged on how many of their teens they can keep from dropping out. But that assumes all schools are reporting honestly and accurately. They’re not.

Officially, only 8 percent of Dallas students drop out over the course of high school. Tell me how that makes sense in a district that enrolls 14,000 freshmen and 7,000 seniors.

There are a lot of ways to describe this sort of number-shaping. Sometimes, it’s honest people making mistakes. Sometimes, it’s a broken system. Sometimes, it’s simple fraud.

But the point is that you can’t trust the labels if you can’t trust the numbers that back them.

As the saying goes: Garbage in, garbage out. And there’s an alarming amount of garbage.

TEA adds 241 schools with suspect scores; Campuses not likely to be part of inquiry into possible TAKS cheating

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Texas officials have released the names of 241 more schools with suspicious patterns in their test scores. But none are likely to be targeted in the upcoming round of state investigations into possible cheating.

The new list, released Friday, brings the total number of schools with suspicious scores to 699. That’s almost one-tenth of all the Texas schools that administered the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in 2005.

Earlier, the Texas Education Agency had released the names of only 442 schools that had at least one classroom with suspicious scores.

But Caveon – the test-security company the TEA hired to look for cheaters – also looked for schools that had suspicious score patterns schoolwide. Because of differences in the ways Caveon analyzed the scores, some schools were flagged as suspicious schoolwide without raising red flags in any specific classroom.

The TEA had not asked Caveon for the schoolwide list until The Dallas Morning News revealed its existence three weeks ago.

“We wanted to be able to look at all the schools as we think about how to move forward,” spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.

Later this month, a new task force will decide which of the schools with suspicious scores will be subject to on-site investigations by agency staff members. The TEA is tripling its number of investigators in anticipation of inquiries taking months to complete.

But TEA officials have said they do not consider campuses with suspect schoolwide patterns to be as high a priority as those with classroom-level anomalies.

“We think the original list is the one we need to focus on,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

Statistically, it is somewhat easier for an entire school to be flagged than for an individual classroom. That’s because the margin of error in Caveon’s analysis grows smaller as the number of students grows larger.

For example, if a 30-student classroom has three suspicious answer sheets, that could just be the result of random chance. But if a 3,000-student school had 300 suspicious answer sheets, that would raise a red flag.

The agency will formulate a recommendation on which schools to investigate in the coming weeks. The task force will make the final decision. Investigations are expected to begin in September.

Even with the new schools, Houston – the state’s largest district – still has the most suspicious schools in the state, 83. Dallas, the second-largest district, is next with 49 schools.

On the previous, shorter list, Dallas had only 39 suspicious schools. Most area suburban districts also saw small increases in the number of schools making the list.

In other large urban districts, El Paso now has 20 schools on the list, Austin has 12, Fort Worth has 11, and San Antonio has six.

The new list also includes 16 schools that had suspicious classroom scores but were not included on the TEA’s initial list.

Caveon looked for a variety of suspicious patterns in a school’s test scores. For example, a classroom might be flagged if a large number of students had suspiciously similar answer choices on the TAKS. Large numbers of erasures on student answer sheets, unexpected gains in student performance, and unusual answer patterns could also earn a school a place on Caveon’s list.

The suspicious schoolwide scores show some schools where test-security problems may be systemic. For example, in Dallas, several high schools had suspicious scores schoolwide in all four subjects tested – reading, math, science and social studies.

Those schools were A. Maceo Smith, Carter, Spruce, Kimball, Lincoln, Molina, Roosevelt, Samuell, South Oak Cliff and Sunset.

Well-off suburban districts continue to be flagged primarily for big jumps in test scores, mostly in their high schools. Many of those districts’ superintendents have said those gains are the result of quality instruction, not cheating.

Urban districts were much more likely to be flagged for students who had identical or nearly identical answer sheets, suggesting that students were copying one another’s answers on the high-stakes graduation TAKS test. Explanations for those patterns have been harder to come by.

Test your TAKS knowledge with its toughest questions

Ever wonder how hard the TAKS test really is?

Twice each spring, Texas schools administer the exit-level Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills – the test students must pass in order to graduate from high school. (Once is for 11th graders; the other is for seniors who failed it the first time around.)

Here are the questions that Texas students found toughest on the four sections of the 2006 exit-level TAKS. See if you can outsmart a typical 17-year-old.

————-

1. ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS:
(49 percent got this one wrong.)

“Gorman loved the boulevards and shops that were a few blocks away, an urban type.”

Question: What is the most effective way to rewrite the ideas in this sentence?

A. Gorman, an urban type, loved the boulevards and shops that were a few blocks away.
B. A few blocks away Gorman loved the boulevards and shops, an urban type.
C. Loving the boulevards and shops that were a few blocks away. Gorman was an urban type.
D. Gorman loved the boulevards and shops that were a few blocks away, he was an urban type.

————-

2. MATHEMATICS:
(59 percent got this one wrong.)

Look at the cube below:

Which equation best represents the area of the shaded rectangle located diagonally in the cube?

————-

3. SCIENCE:
(70 percent got this one wrong.)

Compounds with the same chemical composition may have different densities because they:

A: have differences in reactivity
B: are able to bond with oxygen
C: vary in solubility
D: exist in different phases

————-

4. SOCIAL STUDIES:
(48 percent got this one wrong.)

The theory illustrated above represents one reason why the United States continued to support:

A: the Good Neighbor policy
B: a policy of isolationism
C: a policy of containment
D: the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks

—————————————————————————–

5. ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS:
(32 percent got this one wrong.)

“Schindler hisself spent every night in his office, ready to intervene if the gestapo, a Nazi police agency, came to take away one of the Schindlerjuden, or ‘Schindler’s Jews.’”

What change, if any, should be made in this sentence?

A. Change “hisself” to “himself”
B. Change “intervene” to “interveene”
C. Delete the second comma
D. Make no change

————-

6. MATHEMATICS:
(86 percent got this one wrong.)

Winners from the math club’s fund-raiser randomly select a gift certificate from Box A and from Box B. The contents of each box are shown below.

Box A: 5 dinner certificates; 4 DVD certificates; 3 movie certificates; 5 T-shirt certificates
Box B: 4 CD certificates; 3 camera certificates; 5 amusement park certificates; 5 television certificates

What is the probability that the first winner will randomly select a DVD certificate and an amusement park certificate?

A. 20/289
B. 9/17
C. 9/289
D. 1/19

————-

7. SCIENCE:
(81 percent got this one wrong.)

Question: The table shows the results of a study testing the effectiveness of an ulcer medication. Why was one group given a sugar tablet?

A. To include a control group
B. To have an experimental group
C. To provide a variety of treatments
D. To give the body additional nutrients

————-

8. SOCIAL STUDIES:
(72 percent got this one wrong.)

Question: During World War II, the United States became an ally of which of the following European dictators?

A. Adolf Hitler
B. Joseph Stalin
C. Benito Mussolini
D. Francisco Franco

————-

ANSWERS:

Here’s how Texas students answered. The first four questions are taken from the test given to 11th graders; the last four are from the retest given to students who failed the first time. (The correct answers are starred.)

1. ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS
*A: 51 percent
B: 9 percent
C: 7 percent
D: 32 percent

2. MATHEMATICS:
A: 22 percent
B: 16 percent
C: 21 percent
*D: 41 percent

3. SCIENCE:
A: 19 percent
B: 6 percent
C: 45 percent
*D: 30 percent

4. SOCIAL STUDIES:
A: 25 percent
B: 19 percent
*C: 52 percent
D: 4 percent

5. ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS:
*A: 68 percent
B: 1 percent
C: 2 percent
D: 29 percent

6. MATHEMATICS:
*A: 14 percent
B: 59 percent
C: 16 percent
D: 11 percent

7. SCIENCE:
*A: 19 percent
B: 36 percent
C: 24 percent
D: 22 percent

8. SOCIAL STUDIES:
A: 28 percent
*B: 28 percent
C: 24 percent
D: 20 percent

TAKS panel members are in place

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 3A

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley has announced the members of her new task force on test security. The five members will oversee the upcoming investigations of Texas schools suspected of cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in 2005. Caveon, a Utah-based company hired by the state last year, found unusual TAKS scores in hundreds of Texas schools; the task force will ultimately decide how many of them are investigated. The members are:

-Carol Francois, former chief of staff in the Dallas school district

-Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business

-Sylvia Hatton, former executive director of the Edinburg Education Service Center

-George McShan, former president of the National School Boards Association

-A.J. Rodriguez, president of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce