COLUMN: Changing to single-member system can boost diversity

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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I suspect this column wins my all-time Most Likely To Generate 3,000 Angry E-mails Prize, so I’ll start out with a few disclaimers.

I’m not calling anybody a racist. I’m not saying anybody is acting out of malice. I’m not even saying anyone is being unreasonable.

But these are the facts:

Irving’s student body is 19.5 percent white. Irving’s school board is 100 percent white.

Carrollton-Farmers Branch’s student body is 27.9 percent white. Carrollton-Farmers Branch’s school board is 100 percent white.

Lake Worth’s student body is 39.2 percent white. Lake Worth’s school board is 100 percent white.

And the imbalance in those numbers is almost entirely attributable to the way those districts elect school board members.

There are a thousand different ways to run an election, but most districts use some variation of one of two methods.

The first is at large: Each candidate runs districtwide and represents the entire area.

The second is single-member districts: The area is divided into smaller areas, with one board member elected from each.

Boards elected at large tend to look uniform, because the members all face the same set of voters. Imagine if all members of Congress were all elected nationwide. You’d end up with even more middle-age white men than we have now.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I plan on being a middle-age white man eventually myself.)

Obviously, election rules aren’t the only factor that leads to an all-white board in districts with a lot of Hispanics. Whites, on average, vote more often than Hispanics, and voting means power. Hispanics are younger, on average, so more likely to be below voting age. And a hefty percentage aren’t here legally, which obviously bars them from the polling booth.

But I don’t think there’s any doubt that a reasonable drawing of boundary lines would take into account the growing Hispanic neighborhoods in each of these districts – and make it much more likely a minority would be elected to a school board.

“The at-large composition is very traditional, but it makes it harder for minorities to elect the candidates of their choice,” Nina Perales told me. She’s the regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has sued a number of governments over the issue in past years.

In case you’re mentally labeling me a self-hating white man, take note: The problems with at-large elections can cut in all racial directions.

Take, for example, Wilmer-Hutchins. The now-defunct school district’s population was less than 60 percent black. It had a substantial white population in its southern sector and a growing number of Hispanics.

But the school board was 100 percent black – because all the seats were elected at-large. District leaders routinely referred to the district as “black run” and chose to keep at-large elections even after a state study said single-member districts would bring the district better management and more support from a rightly skeptical public.

Single-member districts would have added a diversity of opinions – not just a diversity of race – to Wilmer-Hutchins’ board. Maybe having vigorous debates on the school board would have led to more trustees asking important questions. (Like: “Where have these millions of dollars disappeared to?” Or: “Remind me, why did the FBI just raid our offices again?”)

And there are no doubt school districts down in the Valley where a Hispanic establishment rules, and an at-large voting system serves to keep Anglos or blacks off the board.

The point isn’t to promote one race or another. The point is to have different perspectives on the board. A board where everyone agrees on everything may seem neat and tidy. But a board where people are vigorously defending different points of view can be, in the end, more productive.

I talked to Susan Thillen, who works in Lake Worth ISD. She told me all about her district’s efforts to help Hispanic students. Just that morning, she had attended a program for young Hispanic mothers, teaching them about proper nutrition for their toddlers. The district’s Web site will be translated into Spanish soon. “I know our board pays attention to the needs of all our students,” she told me.

And here’s the thing: I absolutely believe her. Educators (and school board members) are overwhelmingly decent, well-intentioned people. I don’t think white trustees in these three districts are spending their nights scheming up ways to keep Mexicans down. These are good school districts.

But they can get better.

Districts can switch to single-member in a number of ways. A voter petition can place the issue on the ballot, but that takes a lot of signatures.

Someone could file a lawsuit. That’s been done plenty of times in Texas, and they’ve met with success in federal courts. But lawsuits have a tendency to raise tensions, not lower them, and they cost everybody involved a lot of money.

The best alternative would be for districts like Irving and Carrollton-Farmers Branch to agree to a switch themselves. But the issue has been brought up before, and trustees have generally been hesitant.

That’s understandable. Who wants to lose their job?

But, as a famous white man once said, the times, they are a-changin’. Maybe it’s time for our elections to.

State loses TAKS chief to firm that produces test; Rules will keep her from working on Texas issues until 2010

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The state official in charge of the TAKS test has a new employer: the company that produces the test.

Lisa Chandler, the Texas Education Agency’s director of assessment, will join the testing giant Pearson on March 5. She resigned from her state position Dec. 29, saying only that she was considering several job offers in the private sector.

TEA’s contract with Pearson – a five-year, $279 million deal signed in 2005 – puts limits on any agency employees who move to the company. The contract bans them from working on Texas-related matters for 12 months after the switch. A separate state ethics rule would prevent Ms. Chandler from working on the TEA contract until it is up for renewal in 2010.

Ms. Chandler could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Ms. Chandler has been Pearson’s main contact at the agency since she became assessment director in 2003. She has worked at the agency in a variety of roles since 1986. Her search for private employment had been the subject of rumors at the agency for some time.

“We are thrilled to have someone with 20 years of experience in education assessment and public policy join our organization,” Pearson spokesman David Hakensen wrote in an e-mailed statement. Ms. Chandler will be a “national measurement consultant” for the company, which has major testing contracts with a number of states.

In recent years, shifting to the private sector has become an increasingly popular career move for public education officials. The growth of standards-based reform has created huge, profitable markets – both in the administration of standardized tests and in the sale of curricula and tutoring, test-preparation and other services to schools.

When superintendents or other top officials leave for the private sector, their new employers sometimes end up pitching products to their former employers.

“It’s like when Pentagon officials go to work for defense contractors, or congressmen become lobbyists,” said Kenneth Strike, a professor of cultural foundations of education at Syracuse University, who has written numerous books about education ethics. “It raises a series of questions about past and present conflicts of interest.”

Pearson handles nearly all aspects of state testing in Texas, including writing the questions, distributing the test booklets and grading the results. The company handles the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, as well as other assessments for special education students, those with limited English proficiency and others.

Mr. Hakensen, the Pearson spokesman, said he would “defer any additional details” about Ms. Chandler’s role until she joined the company in March.

Dr. Strike said that simply moving to a state vendor is not, by itself, unethical. Instead, he said Ms. Chandler should be judged by her behavior, both at the agency and in her new position. He said the rules delaying work on Texas contracts should go a long way toward alleviating conflict-of-interest concerns.

“I would not be ethically outraged so long as a person conscientiously followed the rules,” he said. “You can’t tell people they can’t work for a living.”

Ms. Chandler oversaw the tail end of the transition from the older, easier TAAS test to the TAKS. That significant shift was managed without any major public hiccups.

But her time at the agency was not without controversy. It was on her watch that concerns arose about cheating on the TAKS, beginning with TEA’s investigation that found rampant cheating in the since-closed Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

Ms. Chandler has coordinated a large portion of the agency’s response to the concerns, including the hiring of the Utah test-security firm Caveon to analyze 2005 TAKS scores and look for cheating. Caveon found suspicious scores at 700 Texas schools.

The agency has changed its response to Caveon’s findings a number of times – first saying it would not investigate the findings, then later deciding it would. TEA waited months to act on the report, drawing criticism that the delays made thorough investigations much harder. The agency has cleared about 600 of the schools, with the remainder still outstanding.

In a written statement, Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley praised Ms. Chandler as “one of the leading experts in managing a state-level student assessment program.” The agency will conduct a national search for her replacement.

State ready to crack down on teachers who cheat; Rules prioritize offenses, help alert other districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The state’s chief regulator of teachers is increasing the priority it places on policing cheating on the TAKS test.

A new set of rules, approved by the State Board for Educator Certification this month, will devote more resources to investigating teachers suspected of doctoring student answers. The rules would also make it easier for school districts to know whether someone applying for a job is suspected of cheating in another district.

“There’s no point in giving a TAKS test if we can’t know the results of that test are the true reflection of a child’s knowledge,” said Bonnie Cain, the superintendent of Pearland schools and the state board’s acting president. “There’s no good in having a test if it doesn’t have integrity.”

The changes come after a Dallas Morning News story in October that found problems with the way schools were informed of the findings of a state investigation into cheating in the now-defunct Wilmer-Hutchins district.

That investigation identified 22 educators who it said “were involved in testing irregularities,” like giving students answer keys or doctoring test documents.

At least 10 of those educators quickly found jobs in other districts, many of which had no knowledge of the findings until informed by The News.

The regulations – which must still pass a few hurdles before taking effect – would divide complaints about teachers into two groups: Priority 1 and Priority 2.

Some examples of Priority 1 offenses: a felony conviction, sex crimes, bringing drugs or weapons onto school property, and a romantic relationship with a student. Priority 2 offenses include things like parent complaints and most misdemeanor crimes.

“There’s no way you can divide up the cases in a way that everyone will be happy with,” Dr. Cain said. “But SBEC needs to be able to prioritize between the really-bad-guy stuff, the kinda-bad-guy stuff, and the ‘not so bad, but we still don’t like it’ stuff.”

The rules formalize a system that had been in place at the agency for the past year and a half. But under that informal system, cheating allegations had been considered Priority 2. The new rules would bump them up to Priority 1.

The new rule targets “serious testing violations,” which it defines as those that involve dishonesty or the intent to fudge the performance of a student or school in the state accountability system. That would cover cheating, but could also include other types of fraud, such as districts changing the racial classification of a student to game the system.

The priority change is important, because the rules also give Texas Education Agency staff more leeway to devote greater resources to high-priority cases – and to close low-priority ones.

Dating back to the days when the board was a separate agency, officials have acknowledged a backlog caused by thousands of relatively minor complaints. The sheer volume clogs the system.

“There are some complaints that have been sitting around for years, literally,” said Jennifer Canaday, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Public Educators.

SBEC’s staff and responsibilities were merged into TEA in 2005, although the board continues to operate separately from the State Board of Education.

The rules also provide guidance on the agency’s controversial system for flagging teachers’ certificates.

If an educator is currently under investigation by SBEC, a note to that effect is sometimes attached to his or her teaching certificate. Since school districts check a teacher’s certificate before making hiring decisions, a “flag” could potentially prevent an educator from getting a job.

But teacher groups have complained for years that the “flags” are applied inconsistently and are hard to remove.

Because cheating was considered a less important offense by SBEC, many teachers suspected of cheating never had their certificates flagged. For instance, in the Wilmer-Hutchins case, none of the 22 educators identified by state investigation received flags, making it easier for them to find new jobs with other districts.

Under the new rules, Priority 2 cases may no longer cause an accused educator to be flagged. Those charged with a Priority 1 offense may be, but only for up to 240 days in most cases.

(The length of time was a point of contention in negotiations with teacher groups. The groups had pushed for 180 days; state officials had initially suggested 365.)

Teacher groups said they are generally happy with the changes, although there are a few details they still hope to change. “We think flagging is fair, as long as minor incidents aren’t going to trigger a flag and there is a reasonable time limit,” Ms. Canaday said.

The rules are now subjected to a mandatory public comment period, after which the certification board will reconsider them. The State Board of Education will have final say over their adoption.

W-H official cited in inquiry; Ex-principal’s lawyer denies wrongdoing in TAKS cheating scandal

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The investigation into TAKS cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins schools is moving up the district’s chain of command.

Jatis McCollister, the former principal of Alta Mesa Elementary, knew that cheating was going on and that the school’s high test scores were unearned, according to a complaint filed by officials in a state administrative court on Friday.

She is the first administrator in the defunct school district to be targeted, but she may not be the last. State officials said that a number of other district and campus officials could face sanction hearings before a state judge in the coming months, both for TAKS cheating and falsifying attendance data to generate more money from the state.

“If you take on the role of being the leader of a campus, that comes with responsibilities,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman.

“It’s your duty to ensure there isn’t this sort of wrongdoing on your campus.”

Ms. McCollister’s attorney, Daniel Ortiz, said she was innocent of all claims in the complaint.

“Ms. McCollister is a longtime Texas educator who enjoys an outstanding record,” he said. “She’s done nothing wrong.”

An earlier state investigation found that 22 Wilmer-Hutchins teachers and other staff members had changed student answers, distributed answer keys and otherwise helped give test scores a false boost on the 2004 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

The district, beset by financial problems, shut all of its schools in 2005. State officials permanently dissolved the district last year.

Mr. Ortiz said he did not know where Ms. McCollister is working or whether she is employed by any local school. The complaint filed Friday does not carry any criminal weight, but it could lead to the revocation of her license to teach.

The state’s investigation was initially prompted by a series of Dallas Morning News stories in 2004, which found suspicious swings in Wilmer-Hutchins test scores and evidence from students and teachers of organized cheating. Alta Mesa was one of the stories’ focal points.

For example, two Alta Mesa students told The News that teachers had pointed out and corrected answers on their TAKS answer sheets.

Alta Mesa’s performance on the state test took radical swings: On fifth-grade tests, the school moved from the bottom 1 percent of the state in 2000 to the top 5 percent of the state in 2004. Alta Mesa’s top-scoring students saw their performance plummet when they moved on to the district’s junior high, where cheating was not suspected.

In those stories, Ms. McCollister strenuously denied that any cheating had occurred. “The kids did well, and because they did well, they’re being made victims of their own success,” she said at the time. “The media has decided that we’re cheating.”

But a later state investigation found otherwise, identifying the 22 teachers and other staffers in the district, eight at Alta Mesa.

According to the complaint filed Friday, Ms. McCollister attempted to sabotage the state’s investigation by telling students how to answer investigators’ questions and by discouraging a parent from allowing her child to be interviewed by investigators.

Mr. Ortiz said that was untrue. He said that the state’s complaint sends a “dangerous message” to school administrators statewide that they could face disciplinary action for deeds done by their staff without the officials’ knowledge.

Friday’s filing puts the case against Ms. McCollister in front of an administrative law judge at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. That judge will determine the issues of guilt or innocence. The State Board for Educator Certification would then determine any punishment, which could range from a reprimand to the revocation of her teaching certificate.

Meanwhile, disciplinary action against the 22 previously identified Wilmer-Hutchins staffers continues its slow march. It has now been nearly three years since the alleged cheating took place, but no formal complaints have been filed against any of them. All of their cases are still pending, officials said.

“It’s not uncommon for these types of cases to take a fair amount of time to process,” Ms. Marchman said.

The defunct district is scheduled to make another appearance in court soon. Former Wilmer-Hutchins Superintendent Charles Matthews faces felony charges related to evidence tampering and falsifying attendance data.

His trial was originally scheduled for later this month, but the regime change at the Dallas County district attorney’s office has forced a postponement of his trial date to March.

TEA may create system to hunt TAKS cheaters; Criticism of private firm spurs call for agency to analyze scores itself

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Unhappy with the way an outside company did the job, the Texas Education Agency appears ready to take on the hunt for cheaters itself.

An agency task force has recommended that TEA build its own system for analyzing scores on the TAKS test to look for suspicious patterns.

But it could be another year or more before the system is ready.

Until then, it appears likely that testing data will go unscrutinized.

“Investigating these anomalies a year or two later is very difficult,” said Michael Donley, the agency’s inspector general. “I have a feeling that old data will be skipped.”

The recommendation is one of 10 made by the state’s test-security task force, which was formed last fall.

An agency spokesperson said Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley was broadly supportive of the recommendations, although details about implementation remain to be worked out.

The task force’s conclusions come as it finishes an unusual investigation into 700 schools whose scores on the 2005 test were flagged as suspicious by the Utah test-security firm Caveon. Nearly 600 of those schools were recently cleared by TEA – most of them solely on the basis of a questionnaire sent to school officials about their testing practices.

State officials have criticized Caveon, saying the company flagged too many schools and questioning parts of its methodology. Just over 100 schools remain under investigation, a process state officials hope to conclude by the end of February.

About 30 more schools will receive on-site visits from state investigators in the coming weeks, including campuses in the Dallas, McKinney and Mesquite districts. About 65 schools have already received on-site visits.

State’s actions defended

Mr. Donley defended the state’s treatment of the 700 Caveon schools, citing the difficulties caused by the nearly two years between the possible cheating and the investigations’ conclusion.

“Given the time barrier, I think our efforts have been effective,” he said. “We did everything we could do.”

It remains unclear why a year passed between the time when Caveon first shared a draft of its findings with TEA, in the fall of 2005, and the beginning of investigations. But no matter the delay’s cause, Mr. Donley said, it severely hampered the agency’s ability to hunt for possible offenders.

Using statistical methods to look for cheating is a practice the agency has argued against in the past, particularly when The Dallas Morning News has used statistical analysis to identify schools where cheating may have occurred. Agency officials have said in the past that they needed some sort of supporting evidence of cheating – such as eyewitness testimony – to merit an investigation.

“I don’t want to say it’s a complete reversal, because we have used data in the past,” agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said. “But some of our policies are changing.”

Ms. Marchman said the system would be designed to be transparent and open, so that schools would know what behaviors trigger an investigation. That would address one of the agency’s complaints about Caveon’s analysis. As a private company, Caveon refused to share its exact methodology for detecting cheating with TEA.

“The biggest problem [with Caveon’s analysis] was not knowing what their algorithms were,” Mr. Donley said. “You can’t tell how strong an indicator is if you don’t know how they did the math.”

Although Caveon would not reveal its exact methods, the company was willing to share more detailed information about its findings, such as the identities of students suspected of cheating and which cases seemed most severe. TEA declined to obtain that information from Caveon.

No details yet

The details of the new TEA system are still months or years away from development. Mr. Donley said that the system would not be in place in time for the TAKS tests that will be administered this spring. He said he wasn’t sure whether it would be ready for the 2008 testing.

Until then, it appears likely that TAKS scores won’t be analyzed for cheating. That would include scores from last spring and the current school year.

Mr. Donley said the agency’s new system would be developed in-house, although he said it was possible outsiders might be hired to add technical expertise.

The task force also recommended that TEA create a “model policy” for test security, determining best practices on how to conduct an honest testing session.

But the decision to adopt best practices will be left up to school districts, which could choose to ignore them. Mr. Donley said the task force did not want to interfere too much with local control.

“I would guess that the task force is trying there not to be too heavy-handed,” Mr. Donley said.

Among the other recommendations the task force made:

* Increase the ease with which educators can report possible cheating anonymously.

* Audit the test-security practices of a random selection of school districts annually.

* Consider adding a test-security component to the state’s accountability system, which produces the much-watched school ratings each fall.

* Require school districts to retain important test-security materials for up to five years after test day.

The task force’s recommendations are not binding as policy; Dr. Neeley could choose to enact some or all of them. In a prepared statement, she said the agency “will give strong consideration to all their suggestions.”

“We will do whatever it takes to make sure our students’ test results are valid and reliable and our testing program above reproach,” she said.

Column: Some educated guesses about ’07

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The first prediction I can remember making came two decades ago, in 1987. My beloved New Orleans Saints, after a full generation of losing, were somehow 12-3 and in the playoffs for the first time.

Drunk on unfamiliar success, I made a bold proclamation: “The Saints will make the Super Bowl this year!”

Didn’t turn out that way. (Minnesota 44, New Orleans 10. A sad, sad day for this sixth-grader.)

But despite that unfortunate start, the opening of a new year brings out the prognosticator in all of us. Therefore, I give you my five predictions for what 2007 will bring to the world of Texas public education.

* The first real signs of pushback against testing in Austin.

The state accountability system – based first on the TAAS test and now the TAKS – has enjoyed broad political support in both parties over the years. But that support has never fully trickled down to the general public – particularly parents and educators.

Last fall, three candidates for governor railed against the test. Kinky Friedman wanted to kill it entirely. Chris Bell attacked “the tyranny of the TAKS” and said its stakes shouldn’t be so high. Even Carole Keeton Strayhorn wanted to move the test from spring to fall so it would be more a diagnostic test and less an accountability mechanism.

Of course, all three lost. But each noticed a wave of anti-testing sentiment among voters – and was eager to ride it.

The Legislature returns to Austin next week, and you’ll see a number of proposals to reduce the pressure levels in the current system – despite the steady drip of rising scores it has created.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, wants to replace the high school TAKS with a series of lower-stakes subject-area tests. She’ll probably get her wish. Others will try to judge schools on their year-to-year improvements instead of a fixed standard. Ms. Shapiro has talked about eliminating the must-pass status of some elementary school tests.

No matter what the details are at the session’s end, 2007 will probably bring the biggest reversal in the momentum of standardized testing since the early 1990s.

* No real change to No Child Left Behind.

For all the hubbub about the federal law over the past few years, it’s seen no significant changes since passage in 2001. The coming Democratic control of Congress has led some to speculate that could change.

I think that’s unlikely. The rumbles of “too much testing” at the grass roots hasn’t yet infected leaders in Washington. Plus, the law’s accountability mechanisms haven’t affected enough schools yet for any widespread revolt to bloom. (In Texas, NCLB has barely been an afterthought for the vast majority of schools, who care more about the state ratings system.)

On the big federal issues, I suspect the Democrats will punt – pushing back the law’s renewal until 2009 and leaving opposition to the law as an issue for the next presidential election. One notable exception: Congress will probably approve more federal funds for low-income schools.

* More oversight for charter schools.

Despite the notable successes of a few charter schools, nearly everyone agrees there are some truly awful charters in Texas. Many of them were birthed en masse at one strange meeting in 1998. Despite their records of financial mismanagement and academic failure, they live on, drinking down the state’s cash.

They persist because the process for shutting down a bad Texas charter school is long, laborious and fraught with political land mines. But there have been some signs that the current administration at the Texas Education Agency is interested in tightening that process and strengthening state oversight of sub-par charters.

Among the quiet backers of tighter controls: some strong supporters of the charter movement. They worry that the bad apples cast a negative light on their more competently run peers.

* Once again, no movement on vouchers.

Conservatives, led by San Antonio businessman James Leininger, have pushed the last several Legislatures to approve using taxpayer money to pay for some students’ tuition at private schools. The most-talked-about plans would give tuition vouchers to students in the worst-performing public schools.

But a small ripple of the national Democratic wave hit the Legislature in November, when several pro-voucher (and Leininger-backed) candidates lost. Despite the stated support of Gov. Rick Perry – and the coming mobilization of Catholics and other religious parents – I suspect vouchers will end up falling short at the Capitol again this year.

* A political movement against bilingual education.

Teaching Hispanic kids at least part of the day in Spanish has been a hot-to-the-touch issue in a number of Southwestern states – most memorably California, where a statewide referendum a few years back largely banned it.

But in Texas – which allows a time-restricted form of bilingual ed – it’s never gained political traction. Part of that is structural: Texas doesn’t allow voter initiatives in the same way some other states do. But part of it is also political, as both parties have hoped for Hispanic votes.

Considering the 2006 battles over immigration – and the number of Republican-authored bills on related subjects filed for the upcoming legislative session – I suspect that’ll change in 2007. We may see some version of the Battle of Farmers Branch repeated statewide.

Warning: These five predictions are probably worth what you paid for them. (Likely less, unless you’re reading this for free online.)

On the other hand, the Saints are currently division champions. Vegas is giving 2-1 odds that they’ll be in the Super Bowl next month.

So if I go 0-for-5, just wait 20 more years – maybe I’ll be right by then.