TEA: Agency officials got friends contracts; Exclusive: Neeley’s likely successor, foundation adviser are named

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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An internal investigation has found that top officials at the Texas Education Agency improperly steered state work to their friends.

The report from the agency’s inspector general says that the problems lead all the way up to TEA’s deputy commissioner, Robert Scott, the likely choice to succeed Shirley Neeley as education commissioner.

Investigators also found that a consultant for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had an unusual influence over how grant money was divvied up.

“These contracts were not competitively bid,” the report states. “Several associated subcontracts were awarded to individuals with ties to TEA senior staff. Key participants in the contracting process do not agree as to how subcontractors were chosen.”

Mr. Scott disputes the allegations.

“I did not tell anyone to hire anyone,” Mr. Scott said Wednesday night. “There are no concrete allegations in that report that can be substantiated about wrongdoing.”

The report’s timing is awkward for the agency. Friday is Dr. Neeley’s final day as education commissioner. She announced her resignation this month after Gov. Rick Perry informed her he would not reappoint her to the post.

Unless Mr. Perry announces her successor before Monday, Mr. Scott would be the likely choice to take over as acting commissioner.

A TEA spokeswoman said a number of agency officials shared Mr. Scott’s stance on the report.

“There are staff named in this report who believe there are factual inaccuracies in it,” spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.

The 23-page report details problems in six grant programs run by the agency. But two individuals appear with the most frequency: Mr. Scott and Jimmy Wynn, the Gates Foundation’s Texas advocacy representative.

They are referred to by their titles in the report, not their names. TEA officials confirmed their identities to The Dallas Morning News.

Mr. Wynn is a Houston resident known for his connections.

“He knows just about everybody in the world, as far as I could tell,” said his former boss John Sawyer, superintendent of Harris County schools. “Jimmy’s a public-relations guy. A promoter. He makes relationships and brings people to the table. That’s his long suit.”

Mr. Wynn went to Austin in 2004 to help Dr. Neeley make the transition into office.

“Shirley called me and asked if Jimmy could come up and help her for a while, get her used to Austin,” Dr. Sawyer said.

For the past several years, Mr. Wynn has used those connections with the Gates Foundation, the philanthropic body that has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into improving the quality of American education. Mr. Wynn did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday. But the report said he “is adamant that, because of the wishes of his clients, he does not get involved in state procurement processes.”

Contract process

All six programs investigated by the inspector general’s office used complicated processes to award contracts. Four shared a common structure.

Each was farmed out to one of Texas’ 20 education service centers. As regional extensions of the state’s public education system, they sometimes are asked to administer TEA programs.

The report found that once a service center began working with a project, it was sometimes subject to interference from state officials or Mr. Wynn – who the report says “is closely identified with TEA senior staff.”

Take one example. In 2004, TEA decided it wanted to evaluate the quality of its hearing process, the system through which the state decides whether educators should be disciplined.

The agency decided to commit $100,000 to the evaluation and determined that the education service center in Waco would take the lead on the project.

A woman named Emily Miller was hired to do the work. According to the report, she is Mr. Wynn’s ex-wife. And the report states that she is a friend of both Mr. Scott and Adam Jones, TEA’s chief operating officer. It is unclear how she wound up heading the project, and the report states that agency officials gave contradictory explanations.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Scott told investigators that the service center staff had made all hiring decisions on their own.

But the service center’s executive director, Tom Norris, told investigators that Mr. Wynn “instructed him” to hire Ms. Miller and that “he had reason to believe [Mr. Wynn] spoke authoritatively for TEA.”

Ms. Miller told investigators that she “negotiated the terms” of her contract “with the TEA Deputy Commissioner before the contract was awarded to the ESC.”

Ms. Miller completed her work, which was done on a one-year contract, according to the report. She was then awarded an additional one-year contract and an additional $100,000.

This was done without the awareness of TEA senior staff, the report states. The agency could produce no copy of any reports or other work she may have produced during that second year. E-mails between TEA staff included phrases like “I am unsure why this contract would be continued” and “Why are we still funding this?”

Ms. Miller told investigators she never negotiated that second contract with service center staff. Instead, she said, she negotiated it directly with Mr. Scott.

Ms. Miller could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Mr. Scott said the report’s version of his role in Ms. Miller’s contracts was “absolutely false.” He called her “eminently qualified to do the work” and said that she had produced work out of her second contract.

‘Recommended’ hire

The report outlines another grant program in which Mr. Wynn played a key role. The purpose of the Commission for a College Ready Texas is to help prepare the state’s high school students for higher education.

The commission was handled by a different regional service center, in Austin. Investigators found that Mr. Wynn “at least recommended” the hiring of three individuals for that project, again including his ex-wife.

Another of the “recommended” hires: Mr. Scott’s former executive assistant.

In a third grant program, the executive director of the Austin service center said he “was instructed” to give work worth $189,000 over two years to Amy Williams, who had previously been Dr. Neeley’s speechwriter, the report states.

The instructions came from Christi Martin, a TEA policy adviser who left the agency this year for a job at the Gates Foundation. The grant program was funded with Gates money. And, according to the report, Mr. Wynn – a Gates Foundation consultant – also recommended Ms. Williams for the job. Ms. Martin did not return a phone message.

A spokesman for the Gates Foundation said its staff would need time to evaluate the state’s findings. He also said Mr. Wynn’s consulting contract with Gates expires this month.

“Our staff holds itself to the highest ethical standards,” spokesman Greg Shaw said.

The investigation began in February, after Dr. Neeley received a complaint about a grant program that trained principals. According to the report, “the original complainant expressed the belief that the Education Initiatives Division [of TEA] regularly and systemically manipulated the contract and grant process.”

TEA’s Education Initiatives office handles many of the new programs approved by the Legislature and Mr. Perry in recent years, including the Texas High School Project.

Changes proposed

The report also says that the grant programs analyzed are part of a larger problem. “This is not an exhaustive list of [programs] about which TEA staff members expressed concerns,” it states.

The programs investigated were “illustrative” of bigger issues. Investigators report that the number of cases where “practices were vulnerable to manipulation” suggests a contracting system in need of improvement.

The report includes 12 recommendations, including that TEA limit staffers’ ability to intervene with how service centers allocate contract money. The report also recommends “clear written procedures” for how much of a role outsiders like Mr. Wynn can have in state business.

Ms. Ratcliffe, the TEA spokeswoman, said the agency has already adopted one of the recommendations: additional oversight for contracts that don’t go through competitive bidding.

The agency is considering its options regarding the other recommendations. No one has faced disciplinary action as a result of the report, she said.

“We’re going to take this report very seriously, and we’re going to implement anything possible to make sure there’s no hint of anything improper,” Mr. Scott said.

The report has been turned over to the state auditor’s office for further evaluation. TEA did so citing a clause in state law that deals with cases where state money has been “lost, misappropriated, or misused” or where “fraudulent or unlawful conduct has occurred.”

Ms. Ratcliffe said staff members in the auditor’s office will meet soon with Michael Donley, TEA’s inspector general, to determine what additional steps may be taken as a result of the investigation.

FW school cheated, state says; Troubled charter could face closure after TAKS findings

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The state’s investigation into cheating on the 2005 TAKS test has borne its first fruit.

Theresa B. Lee Academy, a Fort Worth charter school with a long history of problems, improperly tampered with the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, state officials announced Thursday. As a result, the Texas Education Agency could launch proceedings to close the school permanently.

“I think this could be the beginning of the end,” agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.

Lee was one of two schools highlighted last week in a Dallas Morning News investigation that found evidence of extensive cheating at a number of Texas charter schools. The two with the biggest problems, according to The News’ statistical analysis, were Lee and its sister school, Jesse Jackson Academy in Houston.

But while Lee is facing sanctions, the state investigation at Jesse Jackson Academy has concluded without finding any cheating. That’s in part because the investigation did not examine a single student answer sheet.

The schools’ superintendent, Jesse Jackson, for whom the Houston facility is named, said Thursday that he runs honest schools and is the target of an organized campaign of unknown origin.

“For some reason, there’s somebody out there who’s said, ‘We’ve got to discredit them,'” said Dr. Jackson, who is not the national civil rights leader and political figure.

But two former teachers at Lee said cheating was a fact of life on the campus.

“It’s just not right what they do there,” said Jakobus Wolf, who was a science teacher at Lee last year. “Kids know that if they go to Theresa B. Lee, somebody else will pass the TAKS for them.”

Analyzing the scores

The state investigation was prompted by an analysis of 2005 TAKS scores by Caveon, a Utah-based test-security firm. Caveon identified 700 schools whose TAKS performance was suspicious in some way, such as having too many students with identical or near-identical answer sheets. The testing performances of Jackson and Lee were among the most suspicious in the state, according to Caveon’s analysis.

TEA investigated the 700 schools. But in more than 90 percent of cases, the investigation consisted solely of sending school officials a questionnaire about their test-security policies. If schools did not provide information that indicated improprieties, they were cleared.

So far, 691 of the 700 schools have been cleared. Lee and another school, Winona High School, are the first two where investigators have confirmed inappropriate behavior. Seven schools remain under investigation, including five in the Dallas school district.

The News, with the assistance of prominent scholars in the cheating-detection field, performed its own statistical analysis on TAKS scores for 2005 and 2006 and found significant cheating at a number of cleared schools on the Caveon list. The most spectacular was Jesse Jackson Academy, where entire grades of students gave long rows of identical wrong answers.

Several researchers said they had never seen so much organized cheating in a contained environment.

“I was shocked by the scale,” said Robert Frary, a longtime cheating researcher and professor emeritus at Virginia Tech University.

“Mind-boggling – total corruption,” said David Harpp, a cheating researcher and professor at McGill University in Montreal.

The state’s report on Lee says school officials repeatedly refused to provide information to investigators. And when they did, the report states, there were a number of contradictions and other problems in the stories that school officials provided.

When investigators asked Lee principal William Powell for certain testing paperwork, he replied that those documents had been “lost in the flood.”

Over the next few months, the exact details of “the flood” varied with each telling of the tale. It was blamed, variously, on “a nearby creek,” “leaking water pipes,” “blowing rain,” a “downpour that leaked through the ceiling” and “seepage up through the floor from unknown sources.”

State investigators could not confirm the existence of any floodlike events, and they even confirmed with the National Weather Service that there was no significant rain at the time that the flooding is alleged to have occurred.

“The explanations provided by the charter school staff are contradictory, and not substantiated or corroborated,” the report concludes.

Answers changed?

Based on interviews with teachers and other staff, the state report lists a number of problems with the 2005 TAKS testing at Lee. One teacher reported that Shirley Dukes, the school’s vice principal, had “changed the answers on the student answer documents” with the help of another teacher.

The reporting teacher also said that Ms. Dukes had prematurely told two teachers the essay topics on the writing portion of the TAKS test. The teachers then passed them on to students. In three cases, the teacher claimed, Ms. Dukes had written the students’ essays for them and “directed the students to copy her written response ‘verbatim’ in their test booklet.”

Ms. Dukes did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment Thursday. But Mr. Powell said Wednesday that he did not think Ms. Dukes would get involved in such activity.

“I don’t think she would cheat, no,” he said.

Mr. Wolf said he first saw cheating at Lee when he was administering a retake of the graduation TAKS in October. Midway through the test, he said, Ms. Dukes came into his room and told him he needed to take the test himself.

“She said, ‘I need to make sure you know your science,’ ” he said.

He took the test quickly, he said. Ms. Dukes then told him she would take over proctoring the rest of the exam.

At the end of the school day, he saw several of his students and asked them how they thought they had performed on the test.

“They said, ‘We did as well as you did – Ms. Dukes just wrote your answers up on the chalkboard after you left,’ ” he said.

Mr. Wolf said Ms. Dukes later approached him to see whether he would be interested in being paid extra to doctor student answer sheets.

“She wanted to know if I knew social studies,” he said. He said he declined and called TEA to report his concerns anonymously.

Another former teacher, Dwaine Guyton, also said that Ms. Dukes was the main force behind the cheating at Lee. He said that for the last several years, students’ completed TAKS answer sheets remained on campus for up to a week after testing had concluded. During that time, he said, Ms. Dukes and another teacher would change student answers.

After Mr. Guyton spoke to investigators this spring, he said, the school decided not to renew his contract. He is looking for work.

He said he did what he thought was his duty – reporting what he knew anonymously to TEA and trying to inform Dr. Jackson, the superintendent. But he said Dr. Jackson disagreed with his claims.

“I tried to say: Why don’t you do it right?” Mr. Guyton said. “We need to help these kids, and if we don’t do everything right, this school isn’t gonna last.”

Students absent

One frustration for investigators: When they tried to interview Lee students, they were nowhere to be found.

Of the 94 students investigators most wanted to reach – those who had been at Lee during the 2005 testing and still attended the school – only four could be interviewed. The remainder were either absent on the day of interviews or, according to school officials, had recently withdrawn from school altogether.

Those levels of absenteeism don’t match up with the records Theresa B. Lee reported to the state. In 2004-05, the most recent year available, Lee reported a 94.4 percent attendance rate.

As a result, the state report recommends that TEA audit the school’s attendance records. Texas public schools are given state funds primarily based on how many students they have attending on an average day. More students equal more money.

“You see kids’ names on [your roster], and they’re kids you’ve never seen in your life,” Mr. Guyton said. “There might be 60 kids, and five or eight of them are there.”

For example, in Mr. Wolf’s fifth-period biology class, his class roster listed 56 students – a number that would be untenable if they were actually in attendance.

But over the last 15 days of school, for example, 36 of his “students” did not attend class even once, according to his attendance records. Fourteen others missed 10 or more of those days.

The daily attendance rate in fifth period over that span: 13 percent. Across all of Mr. Wolf’s classes, the average was just under 20 percent. If the rest of the school’s attendance numbers were similar to Mr. Wolf’s, Lee would be receiving almost five times the state money it deserves.

This will not be the first time that Lee is investigated for improperly reporting the number of students it has. In 2005, the Texas Department of Agriculture took the rare step of shutting down Lee’s school lunch program. A department report said it was in part because the school was reporting – and seeking state payment for – meals that it didn’t serve.

Dr. Jackson said Friday that his schools record attendance honestly.

“We report what our kids are doing,” he said. He then said The News was unfairly targeting his school and hung up on a reporter.

Not what he expected

Mr. Wolf described himself as an idealistic man who joined the faculty at Lee because he wanted to help the disadvantaged. He’d lived a privileged life as the son of a German diplomat in Mexico. After graduating with an art history degree from Texas Christian University, he decided he wanted to teach before applying to graduate programs.

“I thought I could make a difference,” he said.

But he said he had no idea what he was getting into at Lee. His students had no textbooks and no lab equipment. He ended up photocopying sections of his college biology textbook for his students – until he was told he was using too much paper.

When he saw a deal on science textbooks on Amazon.com, he asked Dr. Jackson if he could have $100 in school funds to buy 30. “He got angry and said, ‘Don’t you know charter schools have to do more with less?’ ” Mr. Wolf said.

State records show that Lee has received more than $5 million in state and federal funds since 1999.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jackson and his family have done well financially. At least eight members of the family have been on the payroll of one or both schools.

State automotive records indicate the Jacksons own a 2006 Cadillac XLR Roadster, a 2005 Cadillac DeVille, a 2003 Cadillac Escalade and a 2003 Porsche 911. The base prices on those vehicles total more than $240,000. In 2002, the Jacksons also bought a bayfront home in Galveston.

“He’s driving around in fancy cars and the kids don’t have textbooks,” Mr. Wolf said.

Investigators did not consider the evidence against any specific employees at Lee strong enough to recommend sanctions. But the final decision on what will happen to the school as a whole rests with Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.

She had hoped to make decisions by now, Ms. Marchman said, but she was sidelined by surgery Monday to remove a cancerous growth on her right leg.

Even if Dr. Neeley decides to close the school, Dr. Jackson would be able to appeal – a process that can take several years. During that time, the school would stay open.

Taking down TAKS cheaters; Reforms include inspections at schools, honor code for students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Starting next spring, Texas schools will have to record whom students sit next to during the TAKS test, according to a set of anti-cheating reforms announced Monday.

The Texas Education Agency also will send inspectors unannounced to schools on test day, track which adults administer the tests to students and create an honor code for test takers.

The moves come one week after a Dallas Morning News investigation found more than 50,000 students with extremely unusual answer patterns on the 2005 and 2006 TAKS test. Experts say those patterns strongly suggest cheating by students or school personnel.

“The findings were definitely troubling and certainly raised suspicions,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said Monday.

But the agency will not take the step researchers say would be most effective at deterring cheating: scrambling the order of test questions so students can’t copy off each other.

Among the reforms announced in the agency’s 14-point plan:

*School districts will have to keep more records about how they administer the TAKS test. Districts will have to record where students sit on test day and which adults proctor the exams. Without that information, it can be difficult for investigators to confirm suspicions of cheating.

*Campuses suspected of cheating problems will be assigned independent monitors to oversee testing. State officials will make unannounced visits to schools on test day. And districts found to have problems could have their state ratings lowered.

*The TEA will create a “transparent method” to look for statistical anomalies that suggest cheating has taken place. Ms. Ratcliffe said that would include something “pretty similar if not exact” to the answer-copying analysis The News performed.

But the TEA won’t create multiple versions of each TAKS test, featuring the same questions in slightly different order.

Several researchers who study cheating have said that such a move would eliminate the vast majority of answer copying, because the answer sheet of a student’s neighbor would be aligned with a different set of questions. Scrambled item order is often used on college final exams and other tests to prevent cheating.

“It’s the single most important thing you can do,” said Robert Frary, a professor emeritus of educational measurement at Virginia Tech who has studied cheating for more than 30 years. “With one change, you can get rid of 90 percent plus of cheating.”

In Monday’s news release, the TEA noted that the plan includes “using multiple versions of tests,” and agency officials initially said that some questions that count toward a student’s score would appear on the test in scrambled order.

But the agency later clarified to say that none of those questions would be in scrambled order. Only questions that don’t count – ones being tried out for use on future exams – would be different on each student’s test. That’s no change from the way the TAKS has been given since its inception.

Those field test questions appear at an identical fixed position on each test, but are different from test booklet to test booklet.

Gregory Cizek, who has been a TEA consultant on cheating issues since 2005, said scrambling regular test items is a bad idea. He said it would be “outrageously expensive,” costing millions of dollars. It also would increase the risk of a grading error because it would require multiple answer keys and make the grading process more complex.

“Most testing specialists recommend that if you can avoid introducing a potential source of error, then you should definitely do so,” said Dr. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement at the University of North Carolina.

He also said that even the same questions can, when put in a different order, have different levels of difficulty. That could lead to a situation in which two scrambled versions of the same test could have different cut scores – leading to confusion among school officials and parents.

“Let’s say my kid took a test and needed to get 30 questions right to pass,” Dr. Cizek said. “And your kid took the same test, in a different order, and needed 31. How would people react to that?”

Other researchers disagreed with Dr. Cizek. Dr. Frary argued that the chance of a change in cut score resulting from scrambled questions would be “trivial.”

“And if it happens, you just deal with it,” Dr. Frary said. “Compared to cheating, it’s a very small issue.”

Dr. Frary said that the cost of scrambling would not be on the scale Dr. Cizek said and that his worries about grading error were not big enough to counteract the score-warping power of cheating.

“They’ve taken their head from one hole in the sand and put it in another one,” said David Harpp, a professor at McGill University who researches cheating.

Ms. Ratcliffe acknowledged that maintaining the status quo on scrambling would not help prevent cheating.

“That particular point isn’t aimed at prevention – it’s aimed at detection,” she said. The agency will begin analyzing how student answer patterns change around the field test portion of the exam. A student who answers “real” questions perfectly but gives boneheaded answers to field test items could be copying answers from a neighbor who has a different version of the test.

In addition to the other announced changes, the agency will require more extensive training for teachers who administer the test and better reporting of cheating incidents by school officials.

A number of the plan’s 14 points actually have been standing agency policy for several years. For example, TEA has imposed test monitors on school district a number of times before – most recently this spring in North Forest ISD in Houston. TEA also has reduced a school district’s rating based on a cheating investigation – such as in the Wilmer-Hutchins school district two years ago.

Ms. Ratcliffe said most of the changes should be in place for testing next spring.

COLUMN: Legislators left unanswered questions on new state tests

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The TAKS test is dead. Long live the TAKS!

When legislators went home to their districts last month, the temptation must have been strong to proclaim loudly they had killed off the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Anti-testing sentiment in Texas reached new levels over the past year, and legislators had spent the previous months lined up to take whacks at the hated TAKS.

But the measure they ended up passing, Senate Bill 1031, doesn’t quite match that rhetoric.

First, the TAKS lives on as before in grades three through 8. And in high school, the TAKS is simply being swapped out for a network of 12 new tests. They’ll be given at the end of specific classes, like U.S. History or English II, and tied to their content. Students will have to average a certain score across the tests to earn a high school diploma.

Is this a revolution or something smaller? There’s a lot we don’t know at this point. The first new tests won’t be given until 2012, and there are a lot of decisions to be made between now and then.

The bill still awaits the governor’s signature. But as long as it marches forward, here’s what we can safely assume:

*The new system will increase the pressure on freshmen and sophomores. The TAKS currently has next to no impact on their lives. Those tests aren’t required for graduation; in most districts, they aren’t tied to students’ grades or anything else.

The result: Kids don’t try very hard. In most subjects, TAKS passing rates jump 10 percentage points or more from 10th to 11th grade.

But when those freshman and sophomore tests count toward graduation, even pouty 15-year-olds are likely to take notice.

*The new system will decrease the pressure on many juniors and seniors. Many kids will reach junior year secure in the knowledge they’ve already done well enough that it would take a major testing catastrophe to knock them off course. And for kids struggling to meet the new requirements, there will be more opportunities for retests and do-overs than ever before.

(One likely exception: Students who don’t take one of the tested courses until senior year. For instance, many schools consider physics a senior course – which could leave students with their first crack at a very high-stakes test just days before graduation. Now that’s pressure.)

*All else equal, scores will go up – because kids will be more motivated. Along with the graduation implications, the new tests will count as 15 percent of students’ final grades in their high school courses. So a kid who bombs the biology test could be turning his C- into an F. That’s another incentive to perform – and that’ll push scores higher.

*The end of the year will be less meaningless. The date of the test will be pushed back to the first full week of May. That’s about three weeks after the current TAKS test days. That should limit the amount of lazy post-TAKS time, which in some schools gets treated as an early start to summer vacation.

Beyond those broad brushes, there’s a lot still to be determined. Here’s some of what we don’t know:

*Will the new tests be easier or more difficult than the current TAKS? While the pressure to pass may be reduced, that doesn’t mean the tests will be any easier. The law is silent on matters of difficulty, which will be left up to the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education. If anything, by being attached to a specific course, the new tests could be more in depth than their predecessors.

*How will this all play with No Child Left Behind? The feds will have to approve the new system – and they may put up a fight on a few issues, such as comparability across grade levels.

*Will it make life tougher for older immigrant students? Under the current system, a high school-age kid arriving from Mexico generally gets assigned to ninth grade. That lets him have a couple of years of adjustment – language and otherwise – before he has to face the big, scary graduation test.

But the new system would give those kids high-stakes tests within a few months of arrival. Most won’t speak English, but Texas traditionally doesn’t provide Spanish-language versions of high school tests. How will Texas deal with them?

And a related issue: What will happen to a kid whose family moves to Texas at the start of his senior year? At the moment, it’s not too complicated: He can bang out the graduation TAKS tests in a few days and be cleared for graduation. But will he now have to take 12 tests, including some on subjects he hasn’t studied in years?

*Will the new tests really create an easier route for less ambitious students? In the current system, every kid in Texas takes the same TAKS and has to reach the same standards. (I’m excluding special-ed kids here.) But the new law actually allows kids taking a less ambitious course schedule to take fewer end-of-course tests than their peers.

For example, under the state’s minimum standards, world history, Algebra II and physics aren’t actually required courses for graduation. And kids who don’t take those classes won’t have to take the tests that go with them. Will Texas really go through with having different testing standards for different kids?

*What kind of an impact will the tests have on how schools grade their students? Will schools with lenient grading policies toughen them up when they realize their B and C students are failing the end-of-course tests?

*And finally: What will the new tests be called?

If history is any guide, it’ll be an acronym that starts with T; Texas has now lived through the TABS, TEAMS, TAAS and TAKS. Just calling them “End of Course Exams” seems downright graceless.

Here’s hoping they can come up with something better than Virginia, the state whose model Texas is in many ways following with these changes. They call theirs the Standards of Learning tests, or SOL.

As you might imagine, that acronym has been assigned a different meaning by more than one frustrated student.

Faking the Grade: Day 3 sidebars and graphics

State may switch to online tests

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One possible path to cutting cheating on exams is digital: switching to computerized testing.

The state has conducted several experiments with online tests, and officials have said some state tests – although probably not the TAKS – could be administered solely online within two years.

Without a physical answer sheet, copying answers from a neighbor would be substantially harder. Officials could easily reorder questions or answer choices for each student – or even slightly alter the important numbers in math problems.

That’s how the national exam for certified public accountants is administered, according to Joel Allegretti, spokesman for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Questions are selected for each test taker from a pool of thousands of possible items – meaning no one sees the same questions as his neighbor.

On a computerized TAKS, results would be reported instantly to state servers, giving adults no opportunity to change student answers after testing. And without statewide shipments of test booklets, ill-intentioned teachers wouldn’t have access to questions before test day.

“A lot of these security issues become nonproblems with computer testing,” said Jim Impara, senior director of test security at Caveon, the Utah firm Texas hired to examine its test scores.

Of course, computerized testing would also open up new avenues of cheating. Most schools don’t have enough computers to test an entire grade at once, which could mean testing some students on different days. That could allow answer swapping if questions aren’t tweaked from day to day.

To beat cheats, mix up seats, tests

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David Harpp, a chemistry professor at Montreal’s McGill University, was alarmed when he first discovered that around 5 percent of his students were cheating on his final exams. He and a colleague named Jim Hogan devised a method for detecting the dishonest, but his primary goal wasn’t detection – it was prevention.

So he began creating multiple versions of his exams and started a mandatory seating system. The result: Answer copying almost completely vanished. And when McGill instituted his policies universitywide in 1990, detectable cheating dropped to almost imperceptible levels.

Researchers have found there is a magic solution to answer copying by students. It’s the cocktail of two specific reforms: defined seating patterns and multiple test versions.

The McGill reforms would stop all but the most determined cheater. A student would have to find a way to communicate with a friend whom he was not seated next to – since all of his neighbors would have a different version of the test.

And if he can get in touch with that distant friend – perhaps via text messaging – he would have to hope the friend had the same test version he did. That would only be a one in four chance.

“It makes cheating more difficult in a dignified way,” Dr. Harpp said.


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Here are some changes the Texas Education Agency could make to discourage cheating on TAKS exams:

MULTIPLE FORMS: Print slightly different versions of the TAKS for different students, keeping all the same questions and answers but arranging them in slightly different orders.

Pro: Would almost completely eliminate casual cheating, where one student sneaks glances at the bubble pattern on a neighbor’s answer sheet. Would make it much harder for a teacher or another adult to doctor answer sheets after an exam.

Con: Added complication could increase the time and cost of grading exams. Could raise the risk of grading errors. Would require a statistical procedure to make sure all versions of the test are equally difficult.

PHYSICAL STANDARDS: Require schools to maintain adequate space between students on test day; require students to be seated in some set order with a chart showing where each student sits.

Pro: Reducing a student’s ability to sit next to a best friend would make cooperative cheating more difficult. Keeping students farther apart would make casual cheating more difficult. Seating charts would aid investigations into suspected cheating.

Con: TEA officials say some schools don’t have facilities big enough to avoid seating students close together.

PROCTORS: Prohibit teachers from proctoring the exams of their own students.

Pro: Would reduce incidence of teachers helping their own students improperly on test day or doctoring their answer sheets after the fact.

Con: Would do little to prevent the much more common phenomenon of students cheating off of one another. Could be logistically difficult in smaller schools.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research

Faking the Grade: Efforts to stop cheating often fall short; More emphasis has been placed on TAKS, not on catching copiers

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Last of three parts

In 1975, a social scientist named Donald Campbell came up with the idea that would eventually be called Campbell’s Law. He wrote like an academic, but you could boil the concept down to this:

The higher the stakes, the more likely people are to cheat.

It makes intuitive sense. The Dallas Morning News’ analysis of TAKS scores found that cheating is almost twice as common on the 11th-grade test – which is required for graduation – as on the 10th-grade test.

But experts say that Texas has missed the lesson of Campbell’s Law. Over the past two decades, the state’s tests have become the dominant force in Texas education. But they say the state’s test-security system – the rules and tools officials use to prevent cheating – hasn’t kept up with the increasing importance the TAKS test now has in students’ and educators’ lives.

As a result, they say, the TAKS is given in a far more permissive environment than other high-stakes tests like the SAT, bar exams or graduate-school admissions tests. And much of the cheating on the TAKS could be prevented with a series of reforms based on what those other tests do.

“It seems to me like terribly bad leadership,” said Robert Frary, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech who has studied cheating for more than 30 years. “The people in charge have to make it their priority.”

Testing in Texas is leagues away from where it was in the late 1970s, when statewide tests first came into prominence.

Back then, results weren’t filtered into school ratings or published in the newspaper. Tests were only given in a few select grades. Realtors didn’t pitch houses based on how the neighborhood elementary school had fared.

In the early 1970s, a young man named Jim Impara helped develop Florida’s first statewide testing program. He started attending national conferences on the subject, and there was one subject that was almost never discussed.

“I can’t remember security ever being a topic,” he said. “There wasn’t really any incentive to cheat.”

But in the decades since then, Texas, Florida and the entire nation have begun to take tests much more seriously. Texas’ alphabet soup of tests – first TABS, then TEAMS and TAAS, and now TAKS – evolved into the dominant force in public education. Some teachers’ salaries are now tied to their students’ performance on test day. School ratings are a mark of public pride or shame. And decisions like whether a teen graduates or a third-grader gets promoted now hinge on test scores.

As Campbell’s Law would predict, with higher stakes came a greater temptation to cheat, at all levels of the system. (As Dr. Campbell himself originally put it: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”)

There are a variety of potential penalties on the books for cheating in Texas, all the way up to an entire school being shut down. But punishments are exceedingly rare.

Teachers bear burden

The security of the TAKS depends, in large part, on the many thousands of teachers and other school staffers who handle the exams. For the vast majority, of course, honesty isn’t an issue. But recent years have shown there are exceptions.

“You can’t have the same kind of control you have when you have everyone come to a neutral location and have outside proctors,” said H.D. Hoover, a testing legend who was the primary overseer of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Texas sets no standards for the physical arrangement of students on test day. It has no rules for how far apart students should sit from one another. It also has no rules on seating arrangements, so that in many schools, best friends are allowed to sit within easy view of each other’s answer sheets. (Some school districts voluntarily set tighter rules.)

During tests with higher levels of security, such as the SAT, there are usually firm standards on the distances between students, and students are generally not allowed to choose where they sit. Would-be cheaters are sentenced, at least, to eyestrain.

Texas also does not require schools to keep charts recording where students sit. If two students have identical and highly unlikely answer sheets – but there is no way to know whether they sat near each other – it can be difficult for an investigation to proceed. Texas doesn’t even require schools to record what classroom a student was in when he or she took the TAKS.

“Knowing where they sit can take the evidence from a statistic and make it stronger,” said Dr. Frary, a retired professor of educational measurement.

Some local students said their teachers let them sit pretty much wherever they wanted during TAKS testing. Others said their teachers were more aggressive about assigning seating. But even when teachers take preventive steps, students find ways around them.

Priscilla Ramirez, a student at DISD’s Adamson High School, said that on one test day in her class, students were assigned numbers as they walked in. Each number corresponded to a desk, which was intended to randomize seating. But, she said, some students just traded their numbers to sit next to their friends.

Cheating “is sort of like an epidemic,” she said. “It’s not going to stop unless you really, really, really try.”

Perhaps the single most effective cheating-prevention move the state could make, experts say, would be to produce multiple forms of the TAKS. Currently, on each TAKS test, every student gets all the same questions in the same order. That makes cheating easy, since one child’s Question 12 is also his neighbor’s Question 12.

Scrambling the order of questions in each test booklet makes copying much harder. Many high-stakes tests produce four different versions of exams and distribute them in such a way that no test-taker is seated next to anyone with the same version of their exam.

Diane Birdwell, a teacher at Bryan Adams High in Dallas, said she started producing multiple versions of her classroom tests when she realized kids in her first-period class were sharing answers with their friends in her third-period class.

“It’s a great deterrent,” said Ms. Birdwell, a board member of the teachers’ group NEA Dallas. “You tell the kids, look, there’s no point in looking at Johnny’s No. 14 because his isn’t going to look like your No. 14.”

When engineering professor Charles Bernardin first started teaching at the University of Texas at Dallas, he wasn’t particularly proactive about preventing cheating on his exams. But he quickly noticed that some of students were taking advantage of his lax security.

“If you leave a hundred dollar bill on the floor, people are going to pick it up,” said Dr. Bernardin, who is also the university’s director of academic assessment. “There’s going to be a temptation.”

But then he started producing multiple versions of his exams and mandating where students sit. Now, he said, “I never have any cheating problems.”

Switching to multiple forms does come with a few drawbacks.

For example, printing different versions of test booklets can cost more money and make the test harder to administer. But Texas already prints multiple versions of its TAKS test booklets. Each TAKS contains a number of “field test” questions that don’t count toward a student’s score, but are instead evaluated for inclusion on future editions of the TAKS. Those questions differ from student to student. Only the questions that are identical in every test booklet count toward a student’s score.

For Texas, state officials said, the primary concern would be the added expense and complication. More versions of a test would slow down the grading process and increase the chance, however small, of a grading error.

“Certainly we have the ability to make things more and more complex and generate more forms of the test,” said Criss Cloudt, a TEA associate commissioner who oversees the state’s testing program. “But there’s a price you pay in complication.”

Scrambled versions of the same test would also have to be statistically equated so officials can ensure they are all of equal difficulty. That can take precious time, considering that in Texas, a legislative mandate requires TEA to score the entire TAKS within 10 days of test day.

Still, Dr. Impara said that despite the potential difficulties, he recommends multiple forms for statewide assessment programs. So does the company he helped found, years after he left Florida – Caveon, the test-security firm TEA hired last year to examine the veracity of its TAKS scores.

“It has drawbacks, but the one benefit is better security,” he said.

Dr. Cloudt – who has overseen testing only since February – and other TEA officials defended the state’s test-security system. Traditionally, the state has seen its role as providing training to district testing coordinators through manuals, seminars and other avenues. Those district coordinators are then left to define many of the specific rules for test day. That leaves some districts – like, as of this year, Dallas – with relatively strict rules about things like adult supervision and who can proctor tests. Other districts can have less stringent standards.

“We feel we do a lot to keep testing secure,” Dr. Cloudt said. “We’re certainly open to looking at other ideas.”

A role model for Texas?

When it comes to security on state tests, Mississippi is one of the gold standards. It requires at least two adults in the testing room at all times – and in some cases, even more. Violators of state test-security rules can, in the most extreme cases, be fined or face jail time.

State auditors make at least one unannounced visit to every school district each year on testing days to inspect the security procedures in place. If students are seated too close together to meet state guidelines, for instance, schools are told to spread them out. Seating students at cafeteria tables so they face each other – which is allowed in Texas – is prohibited in Mississippi.

And each year, before scores on the graduation test are released, the state runs statistical checks to look for suspicious scores. One method, similar to The News’, looks for pairs of students with too-similar answer sheets. School districts are told to investigate the most unusual scores; in about half of those cases, according to state testing director Cindy Simmons, the suspicious scores are invalidated. If state officials disagree with a district’s findings, the state Board of Education can overrule the decision.

“There are big consequences attached to these tests, and we want to make sure they’re fair for all students and that no one has an unfair advantage,” Ms. Simmons said. School districts have been cooperative, she said. “It’s not, ‘We’re trying to catch you.’ It’s, ‘We want you to know.'”

Mississippi officials have discussed switching to multiple forms of the test to increase security even more, she said. But so far, the state has decided not to, citing the cost. “We are not a state that is very wealthy,” Ms. Simmons said. “We feel good about our security system as it is.”

Little to gain

What keeps state exams from having a system as secure as other big-time tests? For cheating researcher George Wesolowsky, the key question is one of will.

With so much to gain from high test scores, it’s not always in a school’s or district’s best interest to find cheating, he said. Reports of cheating bring schools embarrassing negative publicity. Students and parents become upset.

“Instructors have no encouragement or incentives to actively look for cheating, and prosecuting cheaters is a time-consuming and unpleasant activity,” said Dr. Wesolowsky of McMaster University, who worked with The News on its analysis of TAKS scores.

Among researchers who have devised methods of detecting cheating, the biggest roadblock often is resistance from school officials who either deny that cheating exists or think it’s not a problem worth fighting.

Dr. Wesolowsky said he’s given his cheating detection program to several private and governmental testing organizations. But those groups are also aware of the negative consequences of discovering cheating.

“Usually when they get the program up and running, an iron curtain goes up,” he said. Concerns about falsely flagging individual students can lead educators to ignore the even more important evidence a statistical analysis can provide: information on which schools have serious test-security problems.

Dr. Frary has faced similar obstacles. “It’s so difficult to institutionalize it,” he said. “It’s a very hard, uphill battle to convince people to go after the problem.”

Even with the wide availability of security measures, some researchers are pessimistic that cheating can ever be completely eliminated as long as someone has something to gain from a high score.

“The basic ground rule is, whatever security measures go in, somebody is going to find out how to evade them,” said David Berliner, a professor of education at Arizona State University and a critic of high-stakes testing. “Banks are still broken into.”

In any event, Dr. Hoover – father of the popular Iowa test given in many Texas schools – has a different recommendation for how to stop cheating: Reduce the high stakes attached to tests.

“That’s what leads to the problems with security: the pressure to raise scores,” he said. “It’s led to cases where teachers, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are being judged on the basis of these instruments. And some of them cave in and do things they shouldn’t.”

Faking the Grade: Schools had issues from Day 1; Many troubled charters were hastily approved over TEA objections

Page 6A

A group of charter schools approved controversially in 1998 are, among all their other problems, a significant source of the state’s cheating.

The 100-plus schools were approved at a rambunctious meeting of a State Board of Education committee. That’s when board members rejected staff recommendations and decided to give a charter school – and access to state money – to every entity that had applied for one. They were dubbed “Generation Three” schools because they were the third group of charter contracts granted by the state.

While some Generation Three charters have succeeded, many have run into financial and academic problems. Test scores at the charters approved that day consistently lag behind charters approved at other points over the past decade.

Of the 50 worst cases of cheating found in the News analysis, 37 were in charter schools. And of those, 29 were Generation Three.

Almost all are in Houston, including Gulf Shores High School, Children First Academy and Alphonso Crutch’s Life Support Center.

Each of those schools was flagged by the test-security firm Caveon, which state officials hired to investigate 2005 test scores. With the exception of Crutch, each of those schools has since been cleared by TEA and declared cheating-free. (Jesse Jackson Academy and Theresa B. Lee Academy, charter schools considered extremely suspicious by both Caveon and The News, are also Generation Three schools. Lee is still formally under state investigation; a preliminary state report has cleared Jackson.)

Gulf Shores High School, in particular, appears to have some of the state’s most significant cheating, according to the News’ analysis. In some cases, the suspect answer sheets come in clusters of a half-dozen or more students, suggesting major problems with how the school polices itself on test day. In many cases, the same pairs of students are flagged multiple times, suggesting that they cheated together on two or three tests.

Were it not for the strange events at that 1998 meeting, it is unlikely Gulf Shores would exist. Out of the 82 applications TEA received in its category of charter schools that year, agency staff rated it 81st. If the State Board of Education had been even marginally selective, Gulf Shores would have been a likely target for rejection.

Instead, TEA has spent much of the last decade pursuing sanctions or other actions against Gulf Shores and its parent organization, Gulf Shores Academy. The charter system has a history of financial and academic problems, including a roughly $8 million debt to the state for over-reporting student attendance. State officials have, for several years, been trying to shut down the school.

Gulf Shores representatives did not respond or could not be reached for comment.

Alphonso Crutch’s has also long been among the state’s most troubled charter schools, with state officials having tried – and failed – to shut it down several years ago. When Crutch officials applied to open a charter school for at-risk students, TEA staffers rated its application the worst applicant of all in its category – 84th out of 84. In the News’ analysis, Crutch had six different TAKS tests where more than 20 percent of answer sheets were flagged for cheating.

Last week, an administrator at Alphonso Crutch’s who declined to give her name denied there was any cheating at the school. “That’s not true,” she said.

The News’ study detected no cheating on most of the TAKS subject tests given at Children First Academy. But there was one big exception: the sixth-grade math test in 2005, where 17 of the 32 students tested were flagged for cheating. That rate – 53 percent of all answer sheets – was the highest of any test at any Texas school in 2005.

Sherwin Allen, director of Children First, told The News he believes his school’s results derive from hard work.

The News’ study also flagged several charter schools that were not part of Generation Three. One was the Paul Quinn campus of Dallas Can! Academy, which was also flagged as suspicious by Caveon and cleared by TEA. The News’ analysis found significant evidence of cheating on six TAKS tests, three in 2005 and three in 2006. On last year’s social studies exit exam, for instance, 17 of 59 students were flagged. Groups of seven and six students each had identical or near-identical answer sheets. All of those juniors passed.

“We do not feel like there was cheating in any way, shape or form from our students,” said Cheryl Rios, a spokeswoman for Texans Can!, the charter’s parent organization.

Faking the Grade: At charters, cheating’s off the charts; Loosely regulated schools among state’s worst offenders on TAKS

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Second of three parts

Last year, 53 sophomores took the math TAKS test at Houston’s Jesse Jackson Academy. Two stood out from the crowd.

They were the only two whose answer sheets don’t show evidence of cheating.

Jackson – a Houston charter school with a long record of trouble with authorities – is home to the most extreme cheating in Texas, according to an in-depth analysis of test scores by The Dallas Morning News.

The cheating spans years, grades and subjects, and it’s on a scale that shocks even veteran hunters of educational fraud. And its existence is the latest black eye for the state’s efforts to regulate its patchwork of charter schools.

“Mind-boggling,” said David Harpp, a Canadian cheating expert who examined the school’s scores. “Total corruption.”

At Jesse Jackson, TAKS passing rates have had big, unlikely swings – like dropping from 100 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2006.

Even with rampant cheating, many of its scores are still very poor. One possible explanation, experts say: School staff members are doctoring students’ answer sheets – but can’t always answer test questions themselves.

And most perplexing of all: A state investigation into the allegations is about to clear the school of all charges – without examining a single student answer sheet. Instead, a state employee interviewed school staff and asked whether they had cheated.

“This is ludicrous,” Dr. Harpp said. “That’s not an investigation. That’s just looking around.”

Not far behind Jesse Jackson in the ranks of the biggest cheaters is another charter school operated by the same family, Theresa B. Lee Academy in Fort Worth. Both schools have had a long series of run-ins with state officials and almost a decade of bad academic performance.

Yet both schools remain open. They continue to receive a stream of taxpayer dollars – more than $11 million so far.

And three years ago, despite the schools’ problems, the Texas Education Agency chose to extend their right to operate for another decade. The agency has been repeatedly criticized for allowing sub-par charter schools – even those that have trouble keeping track of their public money – to stay open.

“It’s a very difficult process to close a charter school,” agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. “That’s why we try to get them to turn in their charter voluntarily. Otherwise, it takes thousands of hours of work and years to do it.”

The News’ analysis of TAKS data from 2005 and 2006, which was done with help from George Wesolowsky, a professor at McMaster University in Canada, found that by far the most extreme cases of cheating were in the state’s lightly regulated and privately run charter schools.

Of the 50 most egregious cases of cheating The News’ study found, 37 took place in charter schools. In each of those instances, a quarter or more of all the answer sheets on a particular test had many more answers in common than experts say would happen by chance.

That’s despite the fact that charter schools make up only 2 percent of the state’s campuses.

“Unfortunately, it’s not surprising,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that often spars with policies supported by conservatives, including charter schools. “The story of charters in Texas has been all about broken promises.”

Contacted by The News last week, Superintendent Jesse Jackson at first said he was confident there was no cheating at the school he named for himself. “That school is fine – I’d put it up against any charter in the state,” he said.

But when the newspaper informed him of the extreme patterns found on his school’s answer sheets, his tone shifted: “I’m going to have to look into it.”

Unprepared schools?

There are two important things to know about Jackson and Lee.

First: No, it’s not that Jesse Jackson. The Jesse Jackson in question is a Houston resident with experience in curriculum and nonprofit work and a doctorate from Vanderbilt University. He is not the civil rights leader and political activist.

Second: If the staff of the Texas Education Agency had gotten its way, there never would have been a Jesse Jackson Academy or a Theresa B. Lee Academy – or, for that matter, many of the other charter schools with cheating problems.

In 1998, state officials decided to increase the number of charter schools and requested applications from entities interested in sponsoring a school. Applications poured in; a charter school could generate millions of taxpayer dollars a year for even a small organization.

In all, 84 proposals were submitted for a specific type of charter school that would target students at risk of dropping out or failing. Two came from the husband-and-wife team of Jesse and Artie Jackson. They proposed a Houston school named for Dr. Jackson and a Fort Worth school named for Ms. Jackson’s mother. (On the first page of the Jesse Jackson proposal, Dr. Jackson is listed as the school’s “principle.”)

TEA staffers were asked to evaluate each of the applications, and they were not impressed with what the Jacksons had to offer. In the ranking system they created, the Jesse Jackson proposal ranked 67th of the 84 applications. Theresa B. Lee ranked 79th.

“We were really trying to find out who was really ready to open a school and who wasn’t,” said Brooks Flemister, who was at that time the agency’s senior director for charter schools.

The schools had the support of a number of legislators in their hometowns. Houston Reps. Harold Dutton Jr., Garnet Coleman and Ron Wilson wrote letters of support. So did Sens. Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth and John Whitmire of Houston.

But reviewers of the two schools’ applications had numerous issues with the proposals, ranging from the schools’ lack of a “clear written vision statement” to problems with the way they planned to teach their curriculum.

In the end, though, those concerns didn’t matter. On Sept. 10, 1998, at a now infamous committee meeting of the State Board of Education, dozens of angry charter-school applicants demanded that their proposals be approved. Several argued that the state was being racially discriminatory when it rated some proposals from minority-led organizations lower than some from white-led ones.

Under pressure from the audience, the board committee voted to reject TEA staff recommendations and to give every applicant a charter. That decision has haunted the Texas charter movement since, as a number of the schools approved that day have gone on to have serious financial and management problems.

“That was the worst day in my professional life,” Mr. Flemister said. “You either have a selection process that is precise, or you just open up the gates and let everybody come in. By opening up the gates, we got some that just weren’t ready to run a school.”

At-risk students

The Jacksons had been operating their two campuses as private schools before getting state charters. They had contracts with the Fort Worth, Houston and Everman school districts to take on some of those districts’ toughest cases. Many of their students were in trouble with their previous schools or the law.

“The kids we were dealing with were the kids that Fort Worth was kicking out of school,” Ms. Jackson said. “We were turning these kids around and sending them back to their regular schools. We received commendations. We reduced the crime rate in the southeast quadrant of Fort Worth, because we were dealing with these kids as if they were our children.”

But tax records show that money was tight before the public dollars came in. In 1997, the year before their charters were approved, the Jacksons’ nonprofit corporation had debts totaling $26,000 and an empty bank account.

The problems at Jesse Jackson Academy started almost the day it became a charter school. State officials have, over the years, reprimanded the schools for a long line of problems, including reporting false dropout data, ignoring accounting requirements and keeping records poorly.

In 1999, an on-site review by state officials flagged the school for needing improvement in governance and “compliance with applicable laws and regulations.” Despite having bragged in its application about its “in-house staff of certified teachers” that was “among the best,” two of Jackson’s five faculty members had no college degree at the time of the review. None of the five teachers were certified by the state, and all had fewer than five years’ experience teaching.

Jackson’s TAKS scores were weak, as might be expected from a school designed to target dropouts and the disadvantaged. The school got the state’s lowest rating – “low performing” or “unacceptable,” depending on the year – five times. In 2003, no Jackson student passed the math, science or English language arts sections of the TAKS. The school has only earned an “acceptable” rating once.

Lee has had its share of problems as well. It has received the state’s lowest rating twice, including in 2006. State officials have repeatedly complained about nepotism. Along with the husband-and-wife team in charge, Lee was previously run by the Jacksons’ daughter and son-in-law, Maria Jackson Branch and Loring Branch. Two brothers-in-law, a nephew, and a nephew’s wife have also been on the payroll.

The schools have also run into repeated financial problems. The most recent annual audit of the Jacksons’ nonprofit – which oversees both schools – expressed uncertainty about the schools’ “ability to continue as a going concern.” The previous year’s audit reported that “inadequacies in the Corporation’s accounting records” had left auditors unable to evaluate some of the school’s expenses. The nonprofit group has also paid at least $119,000 in IRS penalties.

It is difficult to know how much the Jacksons have made from their schools in the years since. State records list Dr. Jackson as drawing a $72,000 salary. Tax records over the past decade show his wife Artie as receiving annual salaries up to $122,000. In at least one tax year, she also rented a building to the family’s nonprofit for $55,000 a year.

Records also show that, at least through the late 1990s, the largest vendor for the nonprofit was a separate for-profit firm named Jesse Jackson & Associates.

But despite the school’s problems, Dr. Jackson paints a rosy picture. “We got the school in Houston turned around,” he said. “It’s doing very well.” He said Lee had struggled a bit, but that he expected it would improve also. As for finances, he said “there’s always going to be enough money to pay the bills.”

Similar answer sheets

It is one of the strange quirks of the cheating at Jesse Jackson and Theresa B. Lee that copying answers often doesn’t appear to have helped many students pass. Students whose answer sheets were filled with responses identical to their classmates’ still didn’t manage to get enough questions correct to do well.

Take last year’s 11th-grade science test, for example. The News’ analysis flagged 46 of Jackson’s 51 juniors for cheating. Their answer sheets are all identical or remarkably similar to the others, as if all 46 students got their answers from the same source – albeit a bad one. But only two of those students actually passed the exam because the shared answers were mostly wrong.

Contrast that with the school’s performance on the 10th-grade social studies test. Not only did every student pass – nearly every student got a near-perfect score. Jackson’s average score was the highest of any school in the state – exceeding the scores of even the state’s most elite magnet schools.

The News’ analysis can’t determine how, exactly, cheating took place. But experts say the data do suggest a number of possibilities.

It is possible that students are, en masse, copying answers from one of their less-bright peers. That would likely require a near collapse of test-security procedures. A school official – usually a teacher – is supposed to supervise every moment of test administration. It is difficult to imagine how 46 students could copy answers off a single source without an honest teacher noticing.

Another possibility: Teachers or other school officials are actively helping, perhaps by preparing answer keys ahead of time or by doctoring answer sheets after the fact. Both of those phenomena have been reported on the TAKS before, such as in the now-defunct Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

But one might also expect a cheating teacher to get more TAKS answers right than Jackson’s students did.

What can be said, according to multiple experts, is that the scores at Jackson and Lee are largely determined by cheating, not the actual knowledge of students. The four most extreme cases of cheating found in The News’ statewide analysis were all at Jesse Jackson Academy.

“I was shocked by the scale” of the answer copying at Jackson, said Robert Frary, a longtime cheating researcher and professor emeritus at Virginia Tech. In more than 30 years of study, he said, he had never seen test fraud so blatant and so total.

The cheating at Lee was not quite as extreme as Jackson’s, according to The News’ analysis, but it was still among the worst in the state. On the 11th-grade science test in 2006, for example, 19 of Lee’s 37 answer sheets were flagged. That was the second highest rate detected on that test in Texas – behind only Jackson.

The News attempted to contact several dozen Jesse Jackson and Theresa B. Lee alumni and current students. A handful said they had no knowledge of cheating. The remainder did not return messages.

Jacksons’ reaction

At first, the Jacksons told The News they were confident the scores at their schools were legitimate and attacked those who questioned them.

“Next month, my mother will make her 93rd birthday,” Ms. Jackson said of the woman for whom Theresa B. Lee Academy is named. “And now they’re going to slander her name? This cannot happen.” She called accusations against the schools “speculation taking off in the air like a germ.”

She pointed out that Lee had, only a year ago, qualified for a $60,000 Governor’s Educator Excellence Award grant because of its test scores. It was one of only five charter schools statewide to be so honored.

“Why is it that after all these years where we have helped people, when we’ve made such an impact and we finally get recognized by the governor – then all of a sudden we’re being attacked? Something is wrong with that.”

After hearing more details from The News about the answer patterns on tests at Jackson and Lee, Ms. Jackson softened. “That does sound suspect.”

Both Jackson and Lee were flagged as suspicious in the analysis of 2005 TAKS scores by Caveon, the test-security firm the TEA hired to look for cheating. As a result, both schools are under investigation by state officials.

Dr. Jackson said a state investigator had told him there might have been some problems at Lee. But Jesse Jackson Academy is poised to get off scot-free.

State investigators have completed their work and written a preliminary report clearing Jackson of all charges, according to a copy obtained by The News.

The state investigation of Jesse Jackson – like all of TEA’s investigations into cheating – did not examine any data drawn from student answer sheets, despite the fact that the data prompted the investigations in the first place.

Had agency officials examined answer sheets for the 11th-grade science test that Caveon flagged, they would have seen the 21 students who had identical answer sheets. Each answered 49 of 55 questions correctly, and each missed the same six questions by giving the same wrong answers.

They would have noticed the kind of unusual answer patterns that decades of research have shown to be the tell-tale signs of cheating – like how 84 of 87 students wrongly answered “J” to Question 30, or how 53 students all answered the first 17 questions perfectly.

But the agency investigator instead focused his efforts on asking teachers how they had managed to earn, on that year’s graduation test, a 99 percent passing rate in math and social studies and a 100 percent in science. Teachers reported they were the result of “extensive and intensive instructional interventions.” As a result, the report states that the investigation “produced no evidence of purposive impropriety.”

“When there’s so much data and information they could look at, to not look at any of it is like having a bag on your head,” said Dr. Harpp, a professor at McGill University who has studied cheating for nearly two decades. “It’s an ostrich with his head in the sand.”

The report does reveal that someone tried to contact TEA during TAKS testing in 2005, “an individual who identified himself as Mr. Johnson alleging cheating.” But the report states attempts to reach Mr. Johnson “were unsuccessful.”

Ms. Jackson took the report as confirmation of her school’s innocence. “Jesse Jackson’s been cleared of all of that,” she said.

A TEA spokesperson said the agency would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Last week, Lee principal William Powell said he hoped the state investigation at his school would find no wrongdoing. He said it was “a good possibility” that one or more of his teachers could have simply taught incorrect material that students then translated into wrong answers.

But when The News shared with Mr. Powell some of the answer strings from Lee’s tests – which show large clusters of students giving up to 30 identical wrong answers – his reaction changed.

“Good Lord – I sure did not suspect this,” said the five-year principal. “Facts and figures don’t lie.”

Because TEA had not provided answer-sheet data, he said, he had no idea what sort of student answers had triggered Caveon’s suspicions until The News shared its data. State investigators also worked without benefit of Caveon data, since TEA chose not to request it from the company.

Having seen the evidence on his school’s answer sheets, Mr. Powell said he would make a stronger effort to prevent it from recurring. “I’m sure you won’t see that again,” he said.

The next day, Dr. Jackson told The News that Mr. Powell had been fired for not ensuring “the test environment is secure.”

Limited oversight

Through all of the difficulties at Jackson and Lee, state intervention has remained limited. That’s been a common complaint about how TEA handles charter schools in trouble: Their behavior is tolerated, for years at a time.

“Before there’s any talk about expanding charters, or vouchers, or turning schools over to for-profit companies, we clearly need to clean up the mess that already exists,” said Ms. Miller, the charter critic.

In 2004 – despite the schools’ problems – TEA agreed to give Jackson and Lee 10-year renewals of their charters. One year later, the agency decided to let both campuses expand, from 250 students to 300.

Ms. Ratcliffe, the agency spokesperson, said that trying to close a troubled charter school takes two years, on average – and has no guarantee of success.

“It is very resource intensive,” she said. “In some cases, where a school has problems, we try to work them out. And if at some point, if the issues are resolved at the moment, we’ve ultimately renewed them.”

Mr. Flemister, the former TEA official, said the borderline charter schools approved at that 1998 meeting swamped the agency’s capacity to provide proper oversight.

“All of a sudden, every single office in the agency had 30 percent more work to do, with a lot of brand new schools that, to be honest, didn’t even speak the language,” he said.

And since Mr. Flemister left the agency, several rounds of budget cuts have left TEA with a substantially smaller staff.

A bill proposed in the recent legislative session, Senate Bill 4, would have made it easier to close certain under-performing charter schools. As originally written, it could have allowed the closure of Theresa B. Lee, but let Jesse Jackson Academy survive.

But, as has happened before with proposals to tighten regulations on charter schools, the Legislature concluded its session without passing it.

“Dealing with charter schools is like the proverbial herding cats,” Mr. Flemister said. “They can be ornery. Working with ISDs [traditional schools] is like training a dog – eventually, they’re going to get it.

“TEA was used to dogs, not cats.”

Faking the Grade: At education agency, years of inquiry, few concrete results; Of 700 schools flagged with suspicious scores, TEA has cited none

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Accusations of cheating in Texas schools began in earnest in 2004, when a series of stories in The News uncovered cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins schools in southern Dallas County. The Texas Education Agency initially declined to investigate. But eventually a TEA team found that two-thirds of the test proctors in the district’s elementary schools had helped students improperly. The district was shut down as a result.

Additional News stories found rapid, unusual swings in the 2003 and 2004 scores of several hundred other Texas schools – swings that could be a sign of cheating. Those stories prompted internal investigations in several districts that led to a handful of teachers and principals being disciplined, but other schools being cleared.

To provide an outside point of view, TEA hired Caveon, a Utah-based test-security firm, to analyze 2005 test scores. The company’s report – which sat in draft form at the agency for several months – found 700 schools with scores it considered suspicious for a variety of reasons.

At first, the agency said it would not investigate Caveon’s findings because they considered the analysis merely a test run. Eventually, officials announced they would investigate all 700 schools. But the agency maintained that the analysis overestimated the size of the problem and confused gains in test scores with cheating.

“I’m not trying to say it should be a badge of valor to be on that list [of 700 schools], but every superintendent should be able to explain why those student gains were so good,” state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said last year. “As much effort as we concentrate on closing the achievement gap, I would be disappointed if we didn’t have significant gains.”

That’s despite the fact that only a minority of the schools on the Caveon list were flagged for unusually large gains. More were flagged for unusually large numbers of similar answer sheets, the evidence of cheating found by The News’ study.

For more than 90 percent of the schools on the Caveon list, the state’s investigations have consisted primarily of a questionnaire school officials were asked to complete on their test-security policies. Schools that did so successfully were cleared. Schools in 16 districts received on-site visits.

Today, only 12 of the 700 schools remain under formal investigation. No schools, so far, have been cited for even a single incidence of cheating.

Faking the Grade: Day 1 sidebars and graphics


Page 21A

Here are some of the Texas schools with the strongest evidence of substantial TAKS cheating, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis:

Forest Brook HS, North Forest ISD

Forest Brook High is in the long-troubled North Forest district, where eight of its 11 campuses have state ratings of unacceptable and state officials have appointed an overseer for the district’s finances. Forest Brook had the highest rate of apparent cheating of any large noncharter school in the state. Across all grades, just over 13 percent of the school’s answer sheets were flagged in 2005.

Forest Brook is also home to one of the most extraordinary performances in Texas: the 11th-grade science test in 2005. Half of the students’ answer sheets were flagged for cheating: 93 of 186. Forest Brook’s passing rate jumped from 54 percent the previous year to 95 percent in 2005.

Worthing HS, Houston ISD

The suspicious answer sheets are spread wide at Worthing. There were eight different TAKS subject tests on which more than 10 percent of Worthing’s answer sheets were flagged as likely cheaters. The most suspicious: last year’s 11th-grade science test, on which one-third of the school’s answer sheets were flagged. That’s 47 out of 141. Worthing’s passing rate in that subject was up 23 percentage points from the year before.

Sam Houston HS, Houston ISD

In 2005, Sam Houston High had more suspicious answer sheets than any other school in Texas – 468 in all. Every version of the TAKS test taken at the school had at least a dozen answer sheets flagged for cheating. The school did better in 2006, with the number of suspicious answer sheets dropping to 161. But that still left it with the 15th-highest total in Texas.

South Oak Cliff HS, Dallas ISD

South Oak Cliff had 439 answer sheets flagged over the two years The News examined. That’s almost one out of every 10. The cheating was greatest on the 11th-grade science and social studies exams, where 18 percent of the answer sheets were flagged.

Note: Charter schools are not included.


Page 20A

Accountability system: The state process that assigns ratings to Texas schools. Ratings are based almost entirely on test scores. From best to worst, those ratings are exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable.

Answer string: The responses a student gives to all of the questions on a multiple-choice test, such as the TAKS. On the TAKS, the answer choices alternate between questions: A, B, C or D, then F, G, H or J.

Caveon: A test-security firm that helps organizations improve the security of their exams. The Texas Education Agency hired Caveon in 2005 to analyze its TAKS scores; when Caveon identified 700 schools with suspect scores, agency officials said Caveon’s results were unreliable.

Charter school: A publicly funded but privately run school. Charter schools face fewer regulations than traditional public schools. Collusion: When students work together improperly during a test. There is strong support in the academic literature for the statistical detection of collusion; other types of cheating detection methods, such as those that count the number of erasures on answer sheets, have less support.

Flagged pair: Two students whom a statistical analysis has identified as having answer sheets extremely similar to one another. Cheating detection methodologies look for cases where the similarity is so great and so unlikely that the chances of it occurring naturally are very small.

Frary, Harpp, and Wesolowsky: Drs. Robert Frary, David Harpp, and George Wesolowsky, three cheating researchers who assisted with The News’ analysis. Dr. Wesolowsky’s methodology and computer program were used to perform the analysis. Dr. Harpp, using a different detection method, did a separate analysis of several dozen Texas schools. Dr. Frary examined the results.


Page 22A

A Dallas Morning News analysis of TAKS scores found tens of thousands of students cheating across the state.

Today: Cheating is systemic in some schools – including some that recent TEA investigations have cleared.

Monday: The worst cases of cheating are concentrated in the state’s least regulated campuses: charter schools.

Tuesday: Cheating could be stopped – or at least reduced – if Texas improved the quality of its test security.

Diffuse pressure, defuse problem?

Page 20A

Texas may have an inventive way to end cheating on the 11th-grade TAKS test:

Just end the 11th-grade TAKS test.

A bill passed by the Legislature last month would eliminate all of the high school versions of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. They would be replaced by a series of 12 tests that would be tied to the content of specific high school courses, like algebra I, biology and U.S. history.

Students would be required to earn an average score of 70 on the three tests they take in each of the tests’ four major subject areas – math, English, social studies and science. The new tests would debut with the freshmen who enter Texas high schools in 2011. Students will have chances to retake each of the tests.

In one way, the tests will increase the pressure on students. The results of the tests will count as 15 percent of the student’s class grade. For freshmen and sophomores, those are much higher stakes than the TAKS, which in most districts counts for little to students.

But the main impact should be to distribute the must-pass pressure – currently concentrated in 11th grade – to all of high school. That could reduce the temptation to cheat in 11th grade a bit, but raise it in other grades.

The bill awaits Gov. Rick Perry’s signature.