TEA gets excuses, excuses; State finds merit in 62 school rating appeals, creativity in others

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

None actually claimed a dog ate their homework.

But the Texas schools that appealed their subpar state ratings this year offered up a remarkable variety of explanations and excuses – some sensible, others more notable for their creativity.

Schools blamed their performance on everything from an errant fire alarm to a student going into labor – and, in one case, parent sabotage.

“There are certainly some appeals that we think have very little merit,” said Criss Cloudt, the associate commissioner for accountability at the Texas Education Agency. “But we look at each one closely.”

In all, 160 schools or districts appealed their ratings this year – a fraction of the more than 9,000 ratings TEA hands out annually. The agency approved 62 appeals, often moving a school one rung up the ratings ladder: unacceptable, acceptable, recognized and exemplary. The Dallas Morning News obtained copies of each district’s appeals letter and the agency’s yea-or-nay response.

The state ratings system is based largely on the TAKS test scores of specific subgroups such as black, Hispanic, white and low-income students. A school must produce a given passing rate in each group to earn a certain rating.

Every year, hundreds of schools fall just a few students short of the bar. And many start searching for ways to massage the numbers.

One way is to play with racial boundaries – squeezing students from one subgroup to another.

For instance, Houston’s North Forest ISD appealed the ratings of seven schools, all of which received the lowest possible rating, academically unacceptable. One campus, Kirby Middle School, fell short because of poor performance among Hispanic students in reading and writing.

In its appeal, North Forest argued that several passing students who had been counted as black were actually Hispanic – just enough to edge Hispanic passing rates above the state’s bar.

TEA rejected that claim – along with all of North Forest’s appeals. In a letter to district officials, Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley noted that two of the allegedly Hispanic students had been counted as black each of the previous seven years.

“We can go back and check. They can’t just make a change just for this year,” Dr. Cloudt said.

Other schools look for ways to remove failing students from the data. Gilmore Elementary School in Clear Creek ISD fell one passing student short of exemplary, so it argued for eliminating the scores of a student who “was exhibiting violent behavior” in the weeks leading up to test day.

The school tested him anyway. But after seeing his scores, officials decided that “in retrospect, this may not have been in [the student’s] best interest.” TEA rejected that argument.

A plea for maternity

Instead of removing a failing student, Fort Worth Can! Academy tried to create a passing one. The charter school was rated academically unacceptable – but it was only one student short of acceptable. One teenage girl was set to take the state test for special-education students but went into labor before she could. The school argued that it should be able to count her as a passing student.

“Our campus is in the unique position of being on the teetering point” of being acceptable, Superintendent Robert Ward wrote. TEA rejected the appeal.

At Jane Long Middle School in Bryan, a fire alarm went off during the social studies TAKS exam. Bryan officials argued that the alarm had distracted the school’s black students, whose scores had fallen short of the acceptable bar.

TEA officials denied the claim, pointing out that the majority of students had performed better in social studies than the year before. “This indicates the inability to focus was not widespread,” Dr. Neeley wrote.

Some mercy shown

State officials announce preliminary school ratings in early August each year. Schools have about two weeks to come up with an appeal, and TEA spends more than a month checking the facts and determining which should be approved. A three-person outside panel makes recommendations, which are then sent to Dr. Neeley for the final say.

“With a very high-stakes accountability system, I think we have to take care evaluating every appeal and to look at the legitimacy of what they’re appealing,” Dr. Cloudt said. “It’s important for the credibility of the system that people know we will listen to what they have to say and evaluate it as fairly as we can.”

A handful of schools that didn’t like their students’ grades on essays simply asked for new scores. TEA allows districts to appeal to the state’s testing company, NCS Pearson, for another read of essays they feel deserved higher grades.

Angleton ISD, for example, asked for three students’ essays to be reviewed. NCS Pearson raised one grade, which was enough to push Westside Elementary from recognized to exemplary.

“Grading writing is obviously a very subjective process,” said Angleton Superintendent Heath Burns. “Did Westside receive extra attention because they missed their mark? Probably so.”

Some districts laid no claim to grading errors – they simply asked for mercy.

Midlothian ISD would have been rated recognized had it not been for its black students’ scores in math. Districtwide, 59 out of 94 black students passed; the district needed 61. Midlothian’s appeal argued that the recognized label better fit the district than the acceptable tag TEA had assigned.

“I just felt like I had to bring that to their attention, how close we were,” said Judy Walling, Midlothian’s assistant superintendent for instruction, who crafted the appeal.

The appeal was denied, although Dr. Neeley wrote that she was “sympathetic.”

In some cases, districts had only each other to blame for ratings woes.

Last year, one student left Harwell Middle School in Edinburg and transferred to a public school in McAllen. But McAllen officials forgot to mention the student’s existence in its regular enrollment reports to the state.

As a result, that student was counted as a dropout – and Harwell Middle was rated unacceptable because it had exactly one more dropout than was allowed. Harwell’s appeal was granted.

But another Edinburg school wasn’t as lucky. Esparza Elementary School fell short of recognized status because one too many low-income students failed the science test.

The district argued that one of those failing students shouldn’t have been considered poor because the student’s father had gotten a new job that paid more. The district even sent the father’s pay schedules to TEA in an attempt to have its rating boosted. TEA didn’t bite.

Parental interference?

Perhaps the most extreme one-student appeal came in Rio Vista ISD, near Cleburne. A fourth-grader who consistently got good grades had answered “A” to every multiple-choice question on a practice TAKS test. According to school officials, the student’s parents had encouraged the child to sabotage the TAKS.

“My mom says [the principal] and the school are rewarded for doing well on the TAKS test and they shouldn’t be rewarded because they haven’t done a good job,” the child told a teacher. According to the appeal, that student was the difference between acceptable and recognized.

TEA denied the appeal. It did not rule on how the child’s test should be counted, but it pointed out that the school would still have fallen just short of recognized.

One thing all the appeals had in common: They sought a higher rating.

Dr. Cloudt said she remembered only one case, several years ago, when a district argued for its rating to be lowered.

“Somebody wrote in and said: ‘We shouldn’t have been recognized. We should have been acceptable,'” she said.

She couldn’t remember which district that was.

OBITUARY: Diane Hamilton; Spirited secretary at The News

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 12B

Diane Hamilton, a feisty and funny secretary in the newsroom of The Dallas Morning News, died Christmas morning at Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie.

She was 52 and had faced a yearlong battle with cervical cancer.

“Diane was a bigger-than-life personality whose presence always filled a room,” said Bob Mong, editor of The News.

Ms. Hamilton was born in Lansing, Mich., and raised in the Detroit suburbs. She moved to Los Angeles after high school, working in the insurance industry before heading to Texas in 1998.

Her fiancĂ©, Tim Whittemore, met her in Los Angeles and was immediately attracted to two things: “Her long dancer’s legs and her sense of humor. She knew how to laugh and how to make other people laugh.” A close third, he said, was her sharp mind.

In Dallas, she began work at The News as an executive secretary, working with many of the newspaper’s top editors. She supported their work and that of journalists around the newsroom. Among her responsibilities was the annual assembly of award entries for journalism competitions such as the Pulitzer Prize.

“I can’t tell you how many times she knew the answer to a question or knew how to get things done when no one else seemed to,” said Walt Stallings, the paper’s senior deputy managing editor.

Ms. Hamilton, tall and lean, was a dancer and an athlete. Her cancer diagnosis in February made it harder for her to play golf or dance the cha-cha, two favorite pursuits. But it did not dim her lively spirit.

Ms. Hamilton and Mr. Whittemore lived together for a decade. They decided to marry two weeks ago, after she had received discouraging news from doctors: The cancer had spread to her spine and she only had a few months left.

They had planned to wed yesterday morning at the Ellis County Courthouse. “We got the license, but we didn’t have time for the ceremony,” Mr. Whittemore said.

Ms. Hamilton is survived by five of her seven brothers – Dan Hamilton of Cleveland, David of Northville, Mich., Patrick of Fort Wayne, Ind., and Ray and Doug, both of Farmington Hills, Mich.

There will be no funeral, but a private gathering will be held Friday. Memorials may be made to the American Cancer Society.

Catholic schools to close for rally; Dallas Diocese giving students, teachers a day to lobby for vouchers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Dallas Catholic school students will get a day off Feb. 7 – and not for an early Ash Wednesday.

Schools will shut down so students and teachers can go to Austin for a rally in favor of school vouchers, which use public dollars to send students to private and religious schools. Other Catholic schools around the state are joining the effort.

The move is a sign that new leaders in the Catholic Church – which would probably be the biggest beneficiary of any voucher program – plan to be much more active in lobbying the Legislature than in previous years.

“There are a couple new archbishops,” said Charles LeBlanc, the Dallas Diocese’s director of schools. “We have a new director of the Texas Catholic Conference. And I’m impressed with the energy.”

Vouchers have been a controversial topic for the last several legislative sessions.

Supporters say they allow children to escape failing public schools and give parents choices. Opponents say they take money away from public schools that need it and threaten the separation of church and state.

“The vast majority of Texas parents, Catholic or otherwise, send their children to public schools and want those public schools to be supported by the Legislature, not robbed by a voucher scheme,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that opposes vouchers.

The Catholic Church is by far the largest sponsor of Texas private schools, with more than 80,000 students and 280 campuses statewide. Many are concentrated in poor urban areas – which are also home to many of the low-performing public schools that could be affected by a voucher pilot program.

Many Dallas Catholic-school parents learned of the rally Tuesday, in the form of e-mails from school officials. Christ the King School, for example, told parents the school “apologizes for this inconvenience, but our Dallas Diocese has just mandated Feb. 7 to be a student holiday.”

“We want to support parental choice in education, and we are taking the day off to do that,” Dr. LeBlanc said.

Other dioceses

Other Texas dioceses were still determining how to respond to the rally. Donald Miller, superintendent of schools for the Fort Worth Diocese, said that the diocese would support the rally but that officials are “still working on the scale of our appearance.”

“We want to support the rally and make our presence known and advocate for our families,” he said. The diocese has not yet decided whether to close school Feb. 7.

Austin Catholic schools are also considering closing, according to their superintendent, Ned Vanders, who said the decision could be left up to individual campuses. Austin Catholic schools have about 325 empty seats this school year that could be filled by voucher students, he said.

“I think there may be some legislators that might be leaning toward this, or open to it, and we want to let them know how we feel,” he said.

Representatives of other Catholic dioceses around the state did not return phone calls seeking their plans for the rally.

“There’s never been a loud voice in the past from the bishops on the issue,” said Robert Aguirre, a voucher advocate and one of the rally’s organizers. “But I think that’s changing.”

Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, said she is not surprised to see Catholic leadership becoming more active on the issue.

“In years past, although the stance has always been strong for school choice, leaders and bishops have urged parents to step out into the public arena and be advocates for the issue,” Dr. Ristau said. “I think now, the leaders and bishops are taking that step themselves.”

Ms. Miller, the voucher opponent, said the results of November’s legislative elections would make it harder for a voucher program to be passed in the next session, which begins next month.

But Mr. Aguirre, a San Antonio businessman and chairman of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, said he sees growing support for vouchers. Catholic schools are growing in Texas, driven primarily by the influx of Hispanics into the state. The voucher battle expected in the next session could be an indicator of those Hispanics’ political reach.

“It’s an issue of social justice for low-income people,” he said.

He said he sent letters to each of the state’s Catholic bishops, informing them about the rally and inviting them to join in the effort. Mr. Aguirre, himself a Catholic, said he was surprised to hear that the Dallas Diocese was canceling classes for the rally – “surprised and delighted.”

Critics of plan

But the decision to shut down doesn’t sit well with all Catholics. Nicole LeBlanc, a lay leader in a Dallas Catholic parish, said she was “fuming” when she heard about the Dallas Diocese’s decision.

“I just don’t think that schools should be closed and remove a day of education just to support the church’s political agenda,” said Ms. LeBlanc, who is not related to Dr. LeBlanc. She said the Catholic Church takes many stances on political issues – against the death penalty, against abortion, in favor of services to the poor – but doesn’t shut down school for those issues.

“We don’t cancel school for Roe v. Wade Day in January – why should we cancel for this?” said Ms. LeBlanc, who tutors at a neighborhood public school and opposes vouchers. “I think the bottom line here is money.”

Dr. Ristau said that she could understand that point of view but that the Austin rally would give students “a wonderful opportunity to see civics in action.”

Cheating inquiry clears 592 schools; State’s use of campus self-reporting in TAKS investigation questioned

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Nearly 600 Texas public schools have been cleared of suspicions of cheating, state officials said Thursday, leaving 105 other schools still under investigation.

Texas Education Agency officials cited the clearing of 592 schools as evidence of the integrity of the state’s influential testing system.

“It is imperative that Texans trust our test results and have confidence that they are valid and reliable,” Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said in a prepared statement.

But some question the thoroughness of the agency’s investigation, which relied heavily on self-reported questionnaires filled out by school officials a year and a half after the 2005 tests in question.

“I don’t know how accurate a set of responses you’re going to get from sending people a questionnaire,” said Jason Stephens, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut who studies cheating. “That might be expedient, but if there is something going on, nobody’s going to go out and admit that.”

The investigation stems from a report produced in May by Caveon, a test-security firm. It analyzed schools’ scores on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and tried to determine which schools had unusual patterns that could suggest cheating.

The report flagged 700 schools for a variety of reasons, including scores that jumped too quickly, answer sheets with too many erasures and students whose answer patterns suggested they might have copied off a classmate.

Differing approaches

After some deliberation, state officials decided this fall to investigate the schools. But the schools received different levels of scrutiny. Sixty-five received on-site visits by teams from the agency, in which investigators interviewed educators and other staff about test security.

Instead, the remaining 635 schools were asked to complete a questionnaire asking about a variety of test-security matters. Topics included school policies on cellphone use, the training provided to test monitors, security measures taken to protect test documents, and the straightforward “Did anything out of the ordinary occur that has not previously been reported?”

A 15-person panel of educators met in Austin about a month ago to go over the questionnaires. They didn’t have access to any other information about the schools – such as why Caveon considered them suspicious, how many students had suspect scores, or how extreme the statistical anomalies were. Instead, panel members were asked to evaluate how completely the questionnaires were filled out and to look for any suspect answers.

Unanswered questions

State officials did not disclose what the schools still under investigation had done to earn that status. But it appears that not answering a portion of the state’s security questionnaire may have played a role.

In Dallas, for example, at least three schools – Carter High, Blair Elementary and Holmes Middle – did not answer all or part of the questionnaire because they had switched principals since the 2005 TAKS tests. All three remain under investigation.

That’s despite the fact that statistical evidence against those schools is not as strong as that against other Dallas schools that were cleared.

At South Oak Cliff High, for example, more than 230 TAKS answer sheets were unusually similar to others, which suggests answer copying, according to a News analysis. That’s more than 10 percent of all tests taken at South Oak Cliff that year and far above the state average.

By contrast, the analysis flagged only about 6 percent of Carter High’s 2005 TAKS answer sheets. But Carter remains under investigation, and South Oak Cliff has been cleared.

Schools that received an on-site investigation did not appear to fare any worse than their peers in the state’s analysis. Of the 65 visited, only two remain under investigation: Theresa B. Lee Academy in Fort Worth and Winona High in East Texas.

It’s also unclear how schools were selected for visits. No schools in the state’s two largest districts, Houston and Dallas, were visited, although they had by far the state’s largest number of flagged schools. But 16 schools in Plano and Rockwall received on-site visits; all were cleared.

For schools that remain under investigation, there were many unanswered questions.

“We don’t know anything you don’t know,” said Tam Jones, an assistant superintendent in Crowley ISD, which has two schools still under investigation. “We sent off a stack of paper two inches thick awhile back, and we’ve just been waiting to hear what was going to happen.”

Both Crowley schools were flagged for large gains in test scores, the type of anomaly cited by Caveon that has drawn the most scrutiny.

Brad Lancaster, assistant superintendent in Allen, said he wasn’t surprised that his district’s three schools on the list were cleared.

“We knew we could explain the gains our students had made,” he said.

Mac Bernd, Arlington’s superintendent, said he believed that the questionnaires could be a good way to detect wrongdoing.

“People are not going to perjure themselves when they fill out a government document,” he said. “The penalties for that get really severe.”

All Arlington schools were cleared by the TEA on Thursday.

“My problem with the whole thing is that it seemed our schools were being penalized for doing too well” on the TAKS, Dr. Bernd said. “The explanations we got from the schools were very credible.”

Dr. Bernd and Allen ISD’s Dr. Lancaster said the TEA should have some way to police schools for cheating, but they agreed that Caveon’s methodology was too broad.

“TEA is between a rock and a hard place,” Dr. Lancaster said. “There’s clearly some stuff going on that shouldn’t be going on. But it’s hard to catch those without a net so big that it catches other schools too.”

Some of the 105 remaining schools will receive on-site visits from investigators after the holidays, TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said. The agency hopes to conclude all investigations by the end of January.

Investigations drag

The calendar has perhaps been the investigations’ biggest roadblock. The tests in question were administered in spring 2005. Caveon was hired in June 2005 and promised it could turn out results in six weeks.

However, for reasons TEA has not made clear, Caveon’s findings were not announced until May 2006. It took several more months for the agency to determine how it would deal with Caveon’s findings.

The result is that more than 16 months passed between the test’s administration and the TEA’s first investigations.

“Most people can’t remember who they sat next to yesterday, much less who they sat next to in April 2005,” Ms. Marchman said. “It makes it difficult when you want to have documentation or witnesses, or hopefully both. People can’t remember that far back.”

The state’s test-security task force is finalizing a series of recommendations to Dr. Neeley, the state commissioner, about test security and how best to look for cheaters – if at all. Neither Caveon nor the agency has analyzed the 2006 test scores, now 8 months old, and it is unclear whether they will ever be analyzed.

But Ms. Marchman said it is unlikely there will be a wait like this year’s again.

“It really concerned the task force, the amount of time that has passed,” she said. “They think that’s not acceptable.”

Family’s schools failing again; 2 SE Dallas charters in financial trouble, at risk of state intervention

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Barely a year after receiving a clean bill of health, the North Texas charter schools run by the Belknap family are in trouble again.

State education officials are investigating allegations of financial impropriety, employees are being laid off to cut costs, and the schools are at risk of state intervention. Officials say the schools should be able to finish out the school year; beyond that is less clear.

“We don’t know how bad things are because they don’t have a good set of books,” said Karen Case, a former Texas Education Agency official who was hired by the schools Tuesday as the new part-time superintendent. “But they are in serious financial trouble.”

The Belknap family operates A+ Academy and Inspired Vision Academy, both in southeastern Dallas. Together they enroll more than 1,500 students, some of whom attended the recently shuttered Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

The family previously ran Rylie Faith Family Academy, but state officials closed that school in 2003 after years of low test scores.

Don and Karen Lewis Belknap, the schools’ co-founders, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Charter schools are public schools funded with state taxpayer dollars but without the traditional governance structure of an elected school board. They have proved controversial because many are run by people with little experience in education or management. Academic performance in many charter schools is poor, and state oversight is limited. Laws can make it hard for the state to close even schools with serious financial and academic problems.

Since opening in 1999, the Belknap schools have received well over $38 million in state funds.

Under scrutiny

The Belknaps have been under scrutiny since their schools opened. Previous investigations have found that the schools operated without anything approximating a modern accounting system, writing checks to cash when money was needed. They intermingled public and private businesses, at one point setting up a family member’s chiropractic office on campus rent-free. The schools have also produced some of the state’s worst academic performances.

State officials began a series of interventions in 2000, hiring retired public school superintendent Jack Ammons to advise the Belknaps – and later giving him veto power over most of the family’s decisions. The schools had to pay off significant debts, like the $100,000 it owed the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid payroll taxes.

The schools brought in a new superintendent, Gerald “Rosie” Rosebure, who had experience leading traditional school districts.

Having seen progress, Dr. Ammons released the schools from state oversight in 2005. Soon after, Dr. Rosebure resigned for a job closer to his home on Lake Tawakoni. Both men thought the schools were improving.

“When I left we didn’t owe anybody anything – we even had a little fund balance,” Dr. Rosebure said this week. “And I thought the academics were improving. There were some pretty good teachers there.”

But it appears some of the old problems have returned.

The TEA’s financial audit division began investigating about two months ago, according to Rita Chase, the division’s director. She would not detail the allegations. A preliminary report detailing the agency’s findings is nearing completion, she said, but it could be February before a final report is ready for public release.

Problems with spending

The more immediate concern is paying the bills. Dr. Ammons said that the schools owe roughly $700,000 to vendors and had also taken on additional debt.

“There has been indiscriminate spending – that’s the big problem,” Dr. Ammons said. “They also definitely have too many employees.”

He is again serving in an informal supervisory role, along with a state-appointed role he has overseeing another troubled charter school the family runs in El Paso.

At least three employees were laid off Tuesday, and at least three others resigned, according to Dr. Ammons.

The Belknaps have been criticized in the past for putting family members on the schools’ payroll – such as the cousin they put in charge of special education who had previously worked as a cashier at McDonald’s and Kmart. None of the individuals who lost their jobs Tuesday were family members, Dr. Ammons said.

The schools have not been academic successes. At A+ Academy, for instance, just 43 percent of students passed TAKS last spring. That’s an improvement from 30 percent in 2005, but still well below the state average of 67 percent. The school includes pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

‘We want to do it right’

Dr. Case, the new superintendent, formerly led the TEA’s disciplinary arm and has years of experience with troubled schools. She said she believes the Belknaps want to improve.

“Mrs. Belknap said that specifically to me,” she said. “I was really surprised she would be willing to hire me, since I have served the role of enforcer with this school before. She told me, ‘We want to do it right.'”

Dr. Case and Dr. Ammons said they believe the schools should be able to complete the school year, albeit with some substantial cuts in spending.

“Basically there’s just been too much spending on nonessential parts of the school,” Dr. Ammons said. “That has to stop if they’re going to survive. And I mean that. Not only will we have a hard time meeting the daily expenses, we’ve got to make up all that we owe.”

The future, however, will depend on the TEA audit and the agency’s willingness to keep the schools open.

Some in Austin have expressed a willingness to be more aggressive with troubled charter schools, which have traditionally proved difficult to shut down.

“We’re kind of in a corrective mode right now,” Dr. Ammons said. “But it depends on TEA and what they find. As long as I’m there, it’ll stay open. We will cut where it’s necessary to keep the doors open.”