By Colleen McCain Nelson and Joshua Benton
Dallas Independent School District officials said Wednesday that they are investigating allegations of cheating on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills at Onesimo Hernandez Elementary School.
Dr. William J. Webster, deputy superintendent for evaluation and accountability, said DISD officials have begun interviewing students, staff members and administrators at the school to determine whether the principal and teachers provided answers to test questions or assisted students during last month’s TAAS.
Officials with Edison Schools, the for-profit company that operates Hernandez and six other Dallas elementary schools, said Wednesday that it had thoroughly investigated and dismissed the allegations as unfounded.
“We did our own investigation and reported back to the district that there was nothing whatsoever to these allegations,” said John Chubb, Edison’s chief education officer. “It appeared to be traceable to something somebody saw that wasn’t what they thought it was.”
Dr. Webster also said the district would inquire into reports that students at Hernandez were paid cash for passing the TAAS. Students at at least one other Dallas school, Bryan Adams High School, said they were paid for passing the state test.
Cynthia Romero, the mother of a Hernandez student, told WFAA-TV (Channel 8) that the day the TAAS was given, her daughter’s teacher marked wrong answers with question marks and kept sixth-grader Nicole Vargas after school to correct her answers.
When the school received word this month that students had improved the school’s rating from low-performing to acceptable, Nicole and her classmates who passed the TAAS each received $20, Ms. Romero said.
Neither Ms. Romero nor Deborah Hodridge, the principal at Hernandez, could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Dr. Webster called the practice of paying students for passing the test “unsavory,” but he said district policy does not prohibit monetary rewards.
“Obviously, our main concern is cheating,” Dr. Webster said. “We’ve made it very clear that we don’t condone cheating, and any cheating that we can validate will have very serious consequences.”
The district dispatched its chief assessment officer and chief security officer to Hernandez on Wednesday to begin interviews with staff members and students.
The investigation is a top priority and should be completed within several days, Dr. Webster said.
If teachers or administrators are found to have cheated, they could lose their certification and their jobs, he said.
Two Dallas schools, Harrell Budd Elementary School and Zumwalt Middle School, were found guilty in 1999 of cheating on the TAAS.
Edison took over the management of Hernandez Elementary at the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year.
Dr. Chubb said the company first learned of the allegations of cheating three or four weeks ago. Edison reported its findings to DISD officials within a week of learning of the charges, he said.
He declined to offer specific findings from Edison’s investigation, but he said, “We looked at all the incidents that were cited with the principal supposedly providing help and simply found no merit to them.”
He said officials interviewed every teacher in the school and some students who had allegedly witnessed the incident.
“We simply couldn’t find any substantiating evidence,” he said.
Dr. Chubb said the reports of cash payments originated with the same parent who complained about the allegations of cheating. Edison launched another internal investigation and discovered some evidence that the reports were true, he said.
“It is our belief that, if anything took place, it took place in one classroom with one teacher,” he said, adding that Edison thinks a cash transfer did take place.
Although paying students for passing a test isn’t a violation of district policy, Edison prohibits the practice.
“We certainly believe in celebrating success, but we don’t believe in paying kids one-for-one for test score performance.”
Dallas school board President Roxan Staff said that DISD, like other districts, often uses incentives to encourage students to perform well and follow instructions.
“Ice cream parties, pizza parties, movie tickets – I mean, whether it’s with TAAS or attendance, we have that kind of game we play,” she said.
She said she “probably wouldn’t encourage” cash payments to students for TAAS performance but wanted to leave decisions up to principals and other local campus officials.
At Bryan Adams High School, students said they received up to $50 this month for passing the TAAS. The money was a hit with students, who said it served as an extra incentive to perform well.
“Everybody likes it,” 16-year-old Lisa Alaniz said. “It was an added bonus.”
After Bryan Adams received its TAAS results, school counselors passed out checks to those who passed, said Gena Duncan, 16.
“I think some people just don’t really care about the test,” she said. “But if there’s money involved, that’s different.”
Bryan Adams Principal Karen Hunt-Ramos, whose signature was on the checks, could not be reached for comment.
Rewards for performing well on the TAAS are common, and many schools offer pizza parties and other incentives to students. And programs such as the O’Donnell Foundation have doled out checks to students who pass Advanced Placement tests.
Bryan Adams student Marcus Dillender said students work harder when they have an incentive.
But Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said TEA Commissioner Jim Nelson has discouraged the practice of paying for performance. Although the state doesn’t specifically prohibit cash incentives, rewarding students for passing the test raises questions about privacy, she said.
“By doing that, the school essentially is making public the students who failed the test,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “We think it’s inappropriate to be paying the kids to pass the test.”