By Joshua Benton
An Amarillo teacher leaked a portion of this spring’s TAKS writing test to his colleagues because he wanted his school’s students to have a better chance at passing, a state investigation has found.
The teacher said that he leaked the information because he believed that educators in other districts were doing the same and that Amarillo students were “as deserving of prior knowledge of TAKS test information as students” in those other Texas districts, according to an investigative report released by the Texas Education Agency.
David Tamez, an elementary bilingual teacher, told investigators that he obtained the test information by volunteering to serve on a statewide committee of educators who help determine which questions make it onto the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills each year, the report states. He alleged that members of those committees regularly smuggle out secret TAKS information to share in their home districts – a contention TEA officials vigorously dispute.
“You know good and well what people are doing,” Mr. Tamez said, according to a tape recording of his interview with investigators. “They’re writing down prompts; they’re writing down information.”
The TEA inspector general’s office is recommending a further investigation to determine whether Mr. Tamez’s claims of widespread improprieties are valid.
“We believe in the security of our current system,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.
One person interviewed by investigators gave a different account from Mr. Tamez’s. An Amarillo teacher signed a statement saying Mr. Tamez bragged that the source of his insider test information was someone else entirely: a person he had sex with who works for a company that helps build the TAKS.
Mr. Tamez could not be reached for comment Thursday. According to the report, he has resigned his position in Amarillo and recently moved to the Houston area.
The information Mr. Tamez leaked was the topic on which students taking this year’s fourth-grade writing test are asked to write a brief essay, known as the writing prompt. Students who don’t write an essay that is at least minimally satisfactory automatically fail – no matter how they perform on the test’s multiple-choice section.
Having students write practice essays on the prompt in the days leading up to the exam, in a less stressful environment, could give a school an edge.
The leak to Amarillo teachers occurred at a Feb. 14 meeting of that district’s reading specialists. During the discussion, according to written statements by people who were there, Mr. Tamez said that he was involved in the selection of TAKS items and that he had suggestions on what students should be studying in the days leading up to the test.
He said that it was important for students to practice writing a personal essay using the word “I” and that they needed to know how to write about their feelings when helping others, the report states. He also said that he couldn’t go into more detail before the group without losing his teaching license but that if any teachers wanted more information about the upcoming test, they could approach him after the meeting.
Several teachers said they did approach him individually, to ask him about parts of his talk they found confusing. Each said that instead of answering their questions, he told them exactly what the prompt would be.
Amarillo district officials gathered that something was wrong and told staffers not to share Mr. Tamez’s information with their students or use it to study, according to the report.
“It raised a great alarm among our people,” Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “The integrity of the test was our top priority.”
A week later, on test day, it became clear that Mr. Tamez had inside information. The writing prompt this spring was: “Write a composition about a time when you helped someone.”
The Amarillo ISD conducted an internal investigation, which concluded that teachers had not shared the prompt with their classes and that student scores were still valid. But it also found evidence that Mr. Tamez had learned the prompt from an unidentified employee of Pearson Educational Measurement, which has a $279 million contract to manage the TAKS and other state tests.
One teacher gave investigators a signed written statement about a conversation she had with Mr. Tamez after he gave out the writing prompt.
“I asked him why he knew specifics about the test, and he pulled out a business card and said ‘Because I slept with'” the person, she wrote. She said she did not remember the name on the card, but the person “was from a company called Pearson.”
She told investigators in an interview that the sex had occurred the weekend before the meeting at which he shared the writing prompt with his colleagues.
When a state investigator later asked Mr. Tamez about the claim, he indicated that it actually referred to an employee of a company called TRI-LIN Integrated Services, a San Antonio company that translates some versions of the TAKS from English to Spanish. But he said that he did not have sex with the TRI-LIN employee and that he never told anyone he did.
“If I slept with someone, it wasn’t to get a prompt,” he said in the recorded interview with the investigator.
Mr. Tamez told investigators he had overheard the prompt at a TAKS educator committee meeting he had attended the previous June. Those are state-organized meetings of Texas teachers where they evaluate questions for inclusion on future TAKS tests.
Records show that Mr. Tamez served on such a committee that focused on the fourth-grade Spanish math test June 29 and 30 last year.
Mr. Tamez told investigators that, even though writing wasn’t the subject of the meeting, he overhead a group of educators discussing three or four prompts that could be chosen for the next year’s writing test. One of them, he said, was the subject of particularly intense discussion, and he thought that could be the true writing prompt. He said he went back to his hotel room and wrote the prompts down.
He said that such behavior was common at these TAKS committee meetings, where he often witnessed teachers secretly scribbling notes about questions, according to his interview.
“If you look at the people who serve on the committee and how many of them their vocabulary scores go up, you would find that there is definitely cheating going on – because you know word for word what the words are on the vocabulary test,” he told the state investigator.
He said that he then shared the information with his Amarillo colleagues because he didn’t want his students to be at a disadvantage against students in other districts where committee members spread inside information.
“I’m not saying … [Amarillo students] deserve to cheat. I’m not saying that. But the fact of the matter is that I was the one that was caught, you know?” The TEA investigation did not attempt to determine whether Mr. Tamez’s allegation about leaks in other districts is accurate. But the report does recommend “further investigation of information received that widespread and systemic improprieties may have been committed by committee members who are charged with the responsibilities associated with the preparation of TAKS tests.”
There are reasons to doubt Mr. Tamez’s story that he heard about the prompt at the state committee meeting.
First, according to TEA staff, the process of selecting this year’s fourth-grade writing prompt did not begin until last September – months after the meeting. And this year’s prompt was drawn from a list of more than 50 candidates – not three or four.
“That is a complete lie,” Victoria Young said of Mr. Tamez’s allegation that he learned the prompt when he said he did. She heads development of the reading, writing and social studies portions of the TAKS at TEA.
Agency officials also said that though they would welcome suggested improvements to security at educator committee meetings, they believe claims of widespread problems are false.
“I think that would have come to our attention in many different ways, and it hasn’t,” said Ms. Ratcliffe, the TEA spokeswoman.
Educators are required to sign an oath saying they will not share information outside the committee, and they are not allowed to take notes on any paper that they will be allowed to leave the room with.
“It appears this individual has told multiple versions of how he obtained the information he did,” said Criss Cloudt, TEA’s top assessment official.
There is also reason to doubt that a TRI-LIN employee was his source. Dr. Cloudt said TRI-LIN handles only the Spanish version of the fourth-grade writing test, which uses a completely different writing prompt from the English version. Mr. Tamez leaked the English version’s prompt.
In exchange for agreeing to cooperate with the TEA investigation, Mr. Tamez will receive a written reprimand that will appear on his teaching certificate. But he will retain that certificate and thus will be able to pursue employment in Texas public schools.