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

PROBLEM SCHOOLS

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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.

GLOSSARY

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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.

ABOUT THE SERIES

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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?

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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.

Faking the Grade: About the analysis

By Holly K. Hacker and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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The Dallas Morning News wanted to check whether cheating occurs on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. So it turned to an expert in the field: George Wesolowsky, a professor of management science at McMaster University in Canada.

Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Wesolowsky developed a software program that uses statistical methods to detect cheating on multiple-choice exams. (An academic paper about his method is available on dallasnews.com.) He used the program to analyze 2005 and 2006 TAKS answer sheets for evidence that students may have copied answers from each other. The News analyzed those results to see how much cheating occurs across various schools, grades and subjects.

Here’s how Dr. Wesolowsky’s program works. Let’s say two students take a multiple-choice test with 50 questions, and answer 48 identically. The program calculates the chances that could happen if they were answering independently, with no cheating. It examines how common those shared answer choices are among other students. Sharing only popular right answers won’t trigger red flags – but a long string of uncommon identical wrong answers could. If the odds are extremely unlikely, the students’ answers are flagged as suspect.

If two students are flagged, it doesn’t mean both are cheaters. In many cases, one could be the innocent victim of the other’s wandering eyes.

Dr. Wesolowsky’s method considers several factors, including the difficulty of each question and how the entire class performed. Other researchers in the field said that Dr. Wesolowsky’s is the best or among the best methods for cheating detection yet devised.

Tests examined

Using open records laws, The News requested answer data from the 2005 and 2006 TAKS tests for all public schools in the state. The data covered grades three through 11 and included student responses on each test. (The Texas Education Agency withheld information for about 20 percent of students because of federal privacy laws.)

Student names and other identifying information were not included.

The analysis examined reading and math answers in each grade, plus social studies and science for grades eight, 10 and 11.

Unusual cases

Dr. Wesolowsky’s method assumes that most students in a school are not cheating, so exceptions to the rule stand out. But in a small number of cases, many students taking a test had very similar wrong answers. That could indicate widespread cheating. Many of those schools were among the group the test-security firm Caveon had considered most suspicious in its analysis.

Dr. Wesolowsky analyzed those unusual cases again, this time lumping them with dozens of other schools. That allowed cheating at each school to be properly detected, because the larger pool included enough noncheaters from other schools for the model to work.

To review the results of the analysis, The News turned to two more experts: David Harpp, a professor at McGill University, and Robert Frary, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech.

The two men examined the results independently and both supported Dr. Wesolowsky’s findings. Dr. Harpp, using a different method, also performed an independent analysis of several schools, which supported Dr. Wesolowsky’s findings.

It’s important to note that the purpose of The News’ study was not to make cases against specific individuals, but to estimate the extent of cheating in Texas schools.

Faking the Grade: A conservative estimate

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

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The News’ analysis found more than 50,000 students whose answer sheets on the TAKS in 2005 and 2006 appear to have been involved in cheating. But there are several reasons to believe that underestimates the problem – perhaps severely.

The News’ data did not include about 20 percent of the state’s answer sheets.

That’s because the Texas Education Agency withheld those students’ scores because of federal privacy laws. If those missing kids were flagged at the same rate as the rest of the state, about 12,000 additional tainted answer sheets would have been detected.

The News’ analysis used conservative assumptions at each step of the way.

The News and researcher George Wesolowsky set a high threshold for how similar student answer sheets had to be to be flagged for cheating. The intention was to minimize the chances of a false positive – students being flagged improperly.

The threshold for most of the analysis was set so that the probability that a school with no cheaters will have students flagged is approximately less than one in 10,000. That means there has to be extensive copying before a pair of students is flagged. The side effect is that some students – including those who copied only a few answers – will go undetected.

The methodology used by The News is substantially more conservative than the one used by the test-security firm Caveon in its analysis of Texas scores.

As a for-profit company, Caveon keeps much about its methods secret. But by analyzing the technical parts of its report on Texas, it’s possible to see how many students the company flagged for possible cheating on the 2005 TAKS. In its search for improper collaboration among students, Caveon consistently found more cheating than The News’ analysis did.

Caveon provided comparable data for only five tests. In 11th-grade math in 2005, Caveon flagged 6.1 percent of all answer sheets statewide. The News flagged 1.7 percent. In sixth-grade reading, Caveon flagged 1.9 percent of answer sheets. The News flagged 0.4 percent.

The methods used by The News don’t identify students or teachers who copy mostly correct answers.

The News’ method looks for students who share large numbers of unusual incorrect answers. But if students – or teachers – copy only right answers, resulting in perfect or near-perfect scores, it’s unlikely they’ll be detected.

For example, at Jesse Jackson Academy last year, 11th-graders did very poorly on the science test. Nearly every student bombed the test with almost identical wrong answers, seemingly copied from a single – and very bad – source. More than 90 percent of the students were flagged for cheating; only 5 percent passed.

But on social studies tests, Jackson’s students were superstars. At 10th grade, students had the highest average score of any school in the state – beating out even the state’s best schools. Thirty-two students did not miss a single question. (To put that in context, on the same test at Dallas’ School for the Talented and Gifted, which is about the same size, only three students had perfect scores.) And in 11th grade – the same group of students who bombed the science test – Jackson had the 16th-highest score in the state, out of nearly 1,500 high schools.

Those are remarkable results for a school that has earned the state’s lowest rating in six of the last seven years and caters primarily to recovered dropouts. But because the students got so few questions wrong on the social studies tests, none of those answer sheets was flagged.

There is no way to know how many students might be missed by The News’ analysis because they cheat effectively.

The News’ analysis uses only one detection method.

Caveon, for instance, used four different methods, including ones that look for unexplained sudden gains in performance and high levels of erasures on answer sheets. The News’ analysis looks only for unusually high similarity among answer sheets. That’s the cheating-detection method with the most support from researchers, but it leaves behind cheaters who might be detected through other means.

Faking the Grade: Common questions about the analysis

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Can you really detect cheating through statistics?

The science of detecting too-similar answer sheets is decades old and well accepted among psychometricians – the people who design standardized tests. It has been the subject of dozens of academic papers in respected journals. Statistical methods similar to The News’ are used to detect cheating on major national tests like the SAT and are sometimes used to invalidate a test taker’s scores. At least one university (McGill in Montreal) has invalidated scores on final exams based on a statistical cheating analysis. Different statistical methods generally flag the same students for suspicious scores. And experts say the methods are reliable windows into the scale of cheating on school campuses.

One weakness of the statistical analysis is that it cannot detect in what direction the cheating occurred. In other words, if Johnny and Jimmy are flagged, the analysis cannot tell which one cheated off the other. Ideally, in an investigation, schools would have supporting evidence, such as a seating chart showing that a flagged pair sat next to one another on test day. Current Texas testing rules do not require schools to keep seating charts – or even to record in which classrooms students took the TAKS.

How do we know to trust the data? Couldn’t you just be flagging random kids? Isn’t there a risk of a false positive?

That’s always a risk. Looking for cheaters is a bit like DNA analysis: It can’t identify a match with 100 percent certainty. It can only say that the chance of a false positive is very, very small. The News’ analysis was designed to minimize that chance. It was based on the detection methodology of cheating researcher George Wesolowsky and used very conservative assumptions. According to Dr. Wesolowsky, those assumptions should result in a completely innocent school being falsely flagged less than once out of every 10,000 cases.

Here’s another test of the effectiveness of the methodology. At one point, Dr. Wesolowsky purposefully entered answer sheets from more than 100 schools into his computer program – without telling it which students went to which schools. He then asked his program to determine which pairs of students had answer sheets that suggested cheating.

If the program was flagging kids willy-nilly – that is, if it wasn’t catching cases of true collusion between students or adults – you’d expect only a small fraction of the pairs it found to be from within the same school. But that wasn’t the case. The program flagged 8,548 different pairs of students out of that data. Of those, only 57 featured students from different schools. In other words, without knowing where students were, the program flagged pairs within the same school 99.3 percent of the time. (None of those cross-school pairs are included in The News’ analysis – although many of them connected pairs of students from nearby schools, leaving open the possibility that text messaging was used to cheat in those cases.)

Couldn’t these kids have all the same answers because they studied together? Or couldn’t they have had a bad teacher who taught them all the wrong answers?

Experts say those aren’t valid reasons for the sort of identical answers found in The News’ study. First, kids study together in every Texas school – but two-thirds of all Texas schools had not even a single student flagged for cheating. If studying together led to flagging, you’d expect flagging to be much more common than it is. In fact, a number of studies have found that studying together does not actually lead to markedly increased similarity among students’ answer sheets.

Second, if teachers were teaching the material incorrectly, you’d expect the entire class (or close to it) to get those questions wrong. That’s not true in the vast majority of cases found in The News’ analysis. The most common form of cheating entailed a small group of students who had identical wrong answers that differed significantly from the rest of their class.

Perhaps most important, prior studies have shown that statistical detection correlates almost perfectly with where students sit. When seating positions are known, students with too-similar answer sheets are found to be seated next to one another in every or nearly every case. In other words, studying together or improper teaching don’t lead to flags – but sitting within cheating range does.

Faking the Grade: Failing to catch cheaters: State says it’s addressed the problem, but News uncovers over 50,000 cases on TAKS

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

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First of three parts

Tens of thousands of students cheat on the TAKS test every year, including thousands on the high-stakes graduation test, according to an in-depth data analysis by The Dallas Morning News.

The analysis – among the first of its kind on this scale – found cases where 30, 50 or even 90 percent of students had suspicious answer patterns that researchers say indicate collusion, either between students or with school staff. Perpetrators go almost entirely undetected and unpunished by state officials.

The study contradicts the Texas Education Agency’s stance that cheating on the TAKS is extraordinarily rare and that the agency has done a good job of policing it. Many schools with big cheating problems, including some in North Texas, have officially been cleared by recent state investigations – in most cases simply by proclaiming their innocence on a state questionnaire.

The findings also show that on a high-stakes test like the TAKS – which can determine a school’s reputation, a teacher’s salary and whether a student walks across the stage on graduation day – some people will seek whatever advantage they can find.

“What we have here in many of the schools, particularly charter schools, is rampant cheating involving many students,” said David Harpp, a professor at Montreal’s McGill University who studies cheating and reviewed the analysis.

What the study found

The study examined statewide scores from 2005 and 2006 on the all-important Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills – the state test given in grades three through 11. Some of the key findings:

*The test scores of more than 50,000 students show evidence of cheating. Some of those students were the innocent victims of others copying their answers. But experts say most were likely either deliberately copying answers or had their answer sheets doctored by school staff.

* That total is a small percentage of all Texas students. (Two-thirds of Texas schools showed no evidence of cheating.) But the suspicious scores are focused on the state’s 11th-grade tests. Those are the ones students must pass to earn a diploma.

At more than 100 high schools, at least one in 10 juniors was flagged for having extremely suspicious answer patterns on the TAKS graduation tests. Many of those students graduated last month.

*Cheating is concentrated in the state’s two largest districts – Dallas and Houston – and in charter schools.

Even after accounting for their larger size, cheating is more than three times as common in Dallas and Houston as it is in the state’s other large urban school districts. In Dallas, one out of every six high school juniors was flagged for cheating in 2006.

And in the state’s lightly regulated charter schools – which are funded with tax dollars but run by private companies or groups – cheating was detected at almost four times the rate of traditional public schools. Cheating was more common at underachieving schools, where the pressure to boost scores is the highest.

*Most of the cheating appears to be driven by students copying off of each other, in pairs or small groups. But at a handful of the most flagrant schools, cheating is systemic. On several subject tests, one Houston charter school had 80 percent or more of its answer sheets flagged for cheating – a scale that seems difficult to contemplate without the passive or active involvement of an adult.

“The evidence of substantial cheating is beyond any reasonable doubt,” said George Wesolowsky, a professor at McMaster University in Canada who studies cheating on multiple-choice tests like the TAKS. He worked with The News on the analysis, which used his methodology to identify pairs of student answers that were, statistically, too similar to each other to be the result of chance.

Officials at the Texas Education Agency have consistently argued that statistical analysis can’t prove cheating and that they must rely on other forms of evidence – like getting teachers to confess to misbehavior – in their investigations. TEA decided not to use data drawn from student answer sheets – even with evidence of widespread copying in a classroom.

That approach has not been fruitful. The agency has cleared 98 percent of the schools in its recent round of investigations, in most cases because school officials did not volunteer knowledge of improprieties. Many of those schools were found to have widespread cheating in The News’ analysis.

State officials have said they are willing to reverse course and consider using statistical methods in the future. “I’m certainly open to the idea,” said Criss Cloudt, the TEA associate commissioner who recently assumed oversight over the state’s testing program.

Different school officials had different reactions to The News’ findings.

“I’m not going to dispute the methodology,” Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. “Your study came to the conclusions on what seem like reasonably objective measures.”

He said that after suspicions were raised about TAKS cheating last year, Dallas instituted new test-security policies for this spring’s tests. There must now be two adults in every classroom, and their doors must be kept open during testing. Extra monitors were assigned to schools with suspected problems. Those reforms and others, he hopes, will reduce incidents of cheating from the levels found in 2005 and 2006.

“We’ve had issues regarding our assessment program,” he said. “That’s why we decided to change our protocols.”

Houston school officials, in contrast, issued a statement calling the analysis part of a “continued effort by The Dallas Morning News to dismiss the real academic progress in Texas schools.” The statement said there is “absolutely no evidence” of cheating in Houston schools.

Researchers say The News’ study raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the state’s methods of evaluating schools, which in some cases have given public praise – and promised hard cash – to schools with major cheating problems.

They say that on a test with such high stakes – for every level of the educational system – confronting cheating honestly can be difficult. The incentives for improved scores are strong; those for vigorously fighting cheating are weaker.

“People often don’t want to know what’s happening,” said Robert Frary, a professor emeritus of educational measurement at Virginia Tech who has studied cheating for more than 30 years.

Established methods

The News’ analysis was based on a well-established method for detecting answer-copying developed by Dr. Wesolowsky. Research in these methods dates back more than 80 years; variations of them are used to detect cheating on tests like the SAT, the ACT and some college final exams.

“Some of the methods work better than others, but they all work pretty well,” Dr. Frary said. “Wesolowsky’s is one of the best, maybe the best.” Dr. Frary is considered by some to be the modern godfather of the field, having studied it since the 1970s.

Methods like Dr. Wesolowsky’s look for pairs of students who share unusually high numbers of uncommon answers. A few shared answers won’t trigger any alarm bells. But extreme cases – when the run of identical and unusual answers stretches so long as to move past the boundaries of mere chance – lead to the pair of students being flagged.

Take the case of “Sara” and “Joe,” two students at Dallas’ South Oak Cliff High. (They’re real students, but those aren’t their real names.) In 2005, as juniors, Sara and Joe took the science portion of the graduation TAKS. Out of 55 questions, they answered 51 the same way.

That might not be unusual if they were answering them correctly. After all, the correctanswer to a TAKS question is almost always the most popular response. But they consistently gave the same unusual wrong answers. In Sara and Joe’s case, their answers are so unusually similar to each other that their pattern would appear naturally among the school’s innocent students fewer than once in 277 million cases.

“I can’t think of any other plausible explanation except cheating,” Dr. Wesolowsky said. Dr. Harpp agreed, calling it “an extreme case of arrogant collusion.”

Sara and Joe weren’t the only South Oak Cliff juniors flagged for cheating on the science test. So were 31 others, The News’ analysis found. In all, 77 answer sheets on the 2005 graduation tests were flagged. (The graduation test is also given in English language arts, math and social studies.)

Administrators at several Dallas high schools, including South Oak Cliff, referred questions to district headquarters. But students at South Oak Cliff and other area high schools said they definitely hear about cheating on the TAKS, especially by kids who haven’t studied or have missed lots of classes. That’s not shocking, since in national surveys a majority of teenagers routinely report they have cheated on tests in school.

“It actually makes me angry that they do that, because other people work hard and they study and all that stuff,” said Alma Gonzalez, who just graduated from South Oak Cliff.

She said students would whisper answers to each other on TAKS day, especially when a teacher left the room for a moment. A few times when classmates asked her for answers, she said, she gave wrong ones on purpose.

“They think they can get their way through high school by just cheating, and they’re not really learning anything,” she said.

Caveon analysis

In 2005, after a series of articles in The News about TAKS cheating, TEA hired the test-security firm Caveon to analyze that year’s test scores. Caveon identified 700 schools whose scores it considered suspicious for one or more reasons, including having too many students with answer sheets suspiciously similar to one of their schoolmates.

In that analysis, South Oak Cliff was one of the schools Caveon flagged. But TEA announced in December that it had cleared South Oak Cliff, along with nearly 600 other schools, of any wrongdoing. That decision was based on the contents of questionnaires filled out by each school’s administrators about their test-security practices.

“It is with great pride and pleasure that we are now able to exonerate a large majority of the schools flagged by the Caveon report,” state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said in a prepared statement at the time. “It is imperative that Texans trust our test results and have confidence that they are valid and reliable.”

One member of the TEA panel that reviewed those questionnaires said they were not useful in determining whether cheating had actually taken place.

“That’s basically what this questionnaire process was about: asking schools, ‘Did you cheat or not?’ ” the panel member said. “We weren’t given anything else to go on – no statistical data.”

Currently, only 12 of the 700 schools Caveon identified remain under investigation. No schools, so far, have been cited for even a single incident of cheating.

Meanwhile, according to The News’ analysis, cheating continued at South Oak Cliff. In 2006, 36 percent of the school’s juniors had at least one answer sheet flagged as suspicious on the graduation TAKS.

Forest Brook

South Oak Cliff isn’t the only school cleared by TEA despite an apparent cheating problem.

The school that Caveon found the most suspicious was Houston’s Forest Brook High School, in the North Forest school district. Caveon’s analysis flagged the school in 52 ways, in every TAKS subject area. In particular, Caveon flagged Forest Brook repeatedly for having lots of students with answer sheets very similar to those of their peers.

After site visits and a paperwork review, TEA cleared Forest Brook. The state’s report on its investigation states that TEA did not examine any student answer sheets or use the data produced by Caveon’s analysis. Instead, agency officials interviewed district officials about whether testing procedures were followed on test day. Forest Brook’s leaders denied any wrongdoing.

TEA officials also accepted Forest Brook’s explanation for drawing Caveon’s attention: Teachers had made a “concentrated effort” to prepare students for the TAKS test, and the school had boxed student answer sheets in such a way that they believed it could have triggered a Caveon flag.

Caveon’s work contract does not allow company officials to comment on their findings in Texas. But The News’ analysis found rampant answer copying on the graduation test at Forest Brook – and on a scale unmatched in Texas.

On the 2005 science test, for example, 93 of the 186 answer sheets were flagged for copying. That’s the highest number of tainted answer sheets on a single test at any school in the state. An additional 56 sheets were flagged on the graduation exams in the three other subjects tested.

Forest Brook – a historically poor-performing school – got a passing rate of 95 percent on the science test that year. That was up from 54 percent the year before.

Or, to put it another way: Forest Brook jumped from 23 percentage points below the state average to 14 points above it.

Dr. Harpp did his own analysis of the North Forest data – using a method different from Dr. Wesolowsky’s. He said the data “clearly shows that massive collusion took place” and that North Forest’s explanation was “completely unconvincing.”

“To dismiss this mountain of evidence merely on the word of a few teachers saying they did everything by the book defies all logic,” he said. “In effect, the TEA is certifying that it is more reasonable to believe that nature has completely deviated from its course than that someone has told a lie.”

For some schools, TAKS scores mean money. In recent years, a number of state programs have begun to reward schools and their teachers for good test scores. Forest Brook received a $165,000 state grant this year; the school’s eligibility depended in part on its 2005 TAKS scores.

North Forest representatives did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment last week.

In all, The News’ analysis found 112 schools where at least 10 percent of the answer sheets on a 2005 TAKS test were flagged for cheating. Of those, four are still under investigation by state officials. Another 33 were never flagged by Caveon in the first place, and thus were not part of the TEA investigation. The remaining 75 have been declared cheating-free by state officials.

Sophisticated tactics

Not all cheating schools are created equal.

At many schools, the students identified in The News’ analysis are in isolated pairs – the sort of pattern you might expect if the adults in a school are trying their best, but still don’t keep a close enough eye on each student to prevent one from sneaking answers off a neighbor.

More serious is the pattern common in many Dallas and Houston high schools on the graduation test. In those schools, there still isn’t the pattern one might expect if adults were actively doctoring answer sheets. But the amount of answer copying is large enough that it appears test proctoring is loose.

In 2006, for instance, 17.6 percent of Dallas juniors were flagged for cheating. So were 13.3 percent of Houston juniors. (The statewide average was 4.1 percent.)

“There’s always cheating going on, even when it isn’t the TAKS test,” said Priscilla Ramirez, a rising senior at Adamson High School. She, like all the students interviewed, said she doesn’t cheat. But she hears about students who do.

“It’s crazy how smart people are about cheating,” she said. “If it’s not one way, it’s another.”

Many Dallas-area high school students said they knew of no cheating. But many others said the tools of prospective cheaters have grown beyond the traditional to include text messaging and other electronic forms. Some tactics sound like urban legends – such as kids signaling question numbers and answers with prearranged finger codes – but students swear they’re real.

“It’s getting good enough where the teachers don’t notice it,” said Krysha Bluitt, who just finished her sophomore year at A. Maceo Smith High in Dallas.

Students say there is enormous pressure to do well on the TAKS. Performance on the test can have major impacts on the lives of students, teachers, and administrators. For adults, it can mean bonuses or raises. For schools, too many bad scores can mean permanent closure.

“From day one, when you get there, you’re there to pass the TAKS,” said Ulysses Hauxwell, who just graduated from North Dallas High.

Stephanie Westbrook, acting principal at A. Maceo Smith High, said that the school takes test security seriously and that she knows of no cheating on the TAKS. “Honestly, we try to teach our students about integrity, and it is made very clear to our teachers that [cheating] does not happen under their watch,” she said. District officials also send staffers to campuses on test days to provide “an extra set of eyes,” she said.

Other Dallas principals contacted by The News either denied there was any cheating on their campuses or declined comment. A Fort Worth official said that district is unaware of any cheating at its schools flagged by The News’ study.

The News’ analysis found 67 cases where a Dallas ISD high school had at least 10 percent of its answer sheets flagged for cheating. Those cases included nearly all of the district’s nonmagnet high schools. (A high school typically gives 10 TAKS tests, and The News looked at scores for two years.)

But in a small number of schools, the answer patterns were so off-kilter that Dr. Wesolowsky had to adapt his methodology to properly examine them, since his method is based on the assumption that most students are being tested honestly.

“This is completely outrageous,” Dr. Harpp said of the most extreme cases. “This is so mind-boggling – it requires a new language to describe.”

‘A useful tool’

TEA officials said they did not feel comfortable evaluating The News’ analysis without examining it more thoroughly. But they expressed somewhat less skepticism about the use of statistical analysis than agency officials have over the past year.

“Statistics can be a very useful tool to point you in the right direction,” said Michael Donley, TEA’s inspector general.

Despite that, he said he felt the agency had been correct to rely on interviews – and to exclude statistical evidence – from their recent investigations.

“I couldn’t prove it,” he said of accusations at Caveon-identified schools. “I tried. We talked to everyone we could think to talk to. Our investigators are pretty good at getting at when people are telling the truth.”

But after repeatedly saying that statistical analysis was not a legitimate tool in investigating cheating, officials said they would now consider using a methodology similar to The News’.

“If it works, we would absolutely look at it,” said Dr. Cloudt, the TEA associate commissioner. She assumed oversight of the state’s testing program earlier this year after the state’s assessment director, Lisa Chandler, was forced out.

No matter how the agency moves ahead, Dr. Harpp said there is no doubt in his mind that the cheating found in Texas is real and, in some places, systemic.

“At some point you have to stand up and say, ‘This runs in the face of common sense,’ ” he said.

50,000: The number of students whose TAKS answer sheets appear to have been involved in cheating in 2005 or 2006.

175: The number of Texas schools where, on at least one TAKS test, one in 10 answer sheets was flagged for cheating in 2005 or 2006.

74%: How many of the 50 worst cases of cheating were in Texas’ charter schools. Charter schools make up only 2 percent of the state’s campuses.

Press Club sues former leader over awards; Suit alleges fraud, demands president return all 10 Katies

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The Press Club of Dallas is suing its former president for allegedly faking the judging of the Katie Awards, one of the region’s top prizes for journalists.

The suit, filed Monday in Dallas County District Court, also claims that Elizabeth Albanese was involved in “dishonest and fraudulent” activity with the club’s finances during her 19 months as president.

Last month, The Dallas Morning News reported that Ms. Albanese has a history of mental illness and a criminal history in three states under the name Lisa Albanese, including charges of theft, forgery and circulating false documents.

Ms. Albanese did not return a phone message Tuesday. Attorney Kirte Kinser said that he is representing Ms. Albanese but that he had not been specifically retained for the Press Club suit. He declined to name any other attorneys working for Ms. Albanese or to comment on the suit, which he said he had not seen.

“I think a lot of people are shaking their heads and wondering how we could all have been fooled,” said Rand LaVonn, a former club president and current president of the club’s foundation.

Ms. Albanese was, for seven years, the Dallas bureau chief of The Bond Buyer, a New York-based newspaper that covers the municipal bond business. She became involved in arranging the judging of the Katies in 2003.

Since then, she has won a remarkable 10 Katies, including four last year. One was in one of the Katies’ most prestigious categories, best investigative reporting by a major-market newspaper.

When questions were raised about the legitimacy of her victories, club officials asked Ms. Albanese to produce a list of the judges in the contest. They say she has been unable to provide names that could be confirmed.

The lawsuit – which follows months of internal inquiries and almost deafening buzz in media circles – claims that there was no independent judging in at least some of the years and award categories since 2003.

The suit does not spell out the specifics of the financial claims against Ms. Albanese, but an earlier club inquiry found she had put a number of personal expenses on a club credit card, including shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue and a stay at the W Hotel in New York, club officials said. They have said Ms. Albanese repaid those costs.

The suit also refers to The News’ reporting on Ms. Albanese’s past under the name Lisa. In 1996, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity on a forgery charge in Houston. A court psychologist found that Ms. Albanese had symptoms “clearly indicative of a bipolar disorder” and that she had “reported a history of psychological disturbance since late adolescence.”

The Press Club’s attorney in the case is Paul Watler, who also works extensively for The News. Joining the Press Club in the lawsuit is the Press Club of Dallas Foundation, which funds journalism scholarships for college students. The foundation relies on entry fees for the Katies for a portion of its funding.

The suit seeks the return of all 10 of Ms. Albanese’s Katie Awards. It also seeks unspecified financial damages to cover, among other things, the club’s costs in investigating Ms. Albanese.

“The actions of the past couple years have damaged the Katies and have the potential to damage our ability to give scholarships,” Mr. LaVonn said.

In a statement in The Bond Buyer, the paper’s parent company said it has found no evidence that Ms. Albanese’s stories for the newspaper were falsified.

“We are saddened by the personal difficulties that have impacted our former colleague’s reputation, but do not believe they had any impact on her work,” the statement from SourceMedia said.

In March, Ms. Albanese left journalism and became a vice president at the securities firm First Southwest Co. – a company she had written about often as a journalist, including in at least one of her Katie-winning stories. First Southwest fired her after the revelations about her past.

COLUMN: Charter chain shows results, ambitions

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

The preferred term is “promotion ceremony,” for the record. But whatever you do, don’t call what’s about to happen at KIPP TRUTH Academy an “eighth-grade graduation.”

“We reserve the word ‘graduation’ for the end of high school,” said the school’s principal, Steve Colmus. “Finishing eighth grade is a step along the way. But the goal is bigger than that.”

Whatever you call it, members of the first class of eighth-graders are about to, er, complete their stay at the terrific little middle school in South Dallas. They started as fifth-graders when the start-up campus opened in 2003 and celebrated their work last week with a field trip to Washington, D.C.

“It feels good, because some people asked at the time whether we’d still be here in a few years,” Mr. Colmus said. “It’s nice to know we’ve done what we said we’d do.”

But the important thing about these kids isn’t their past. It’s their future. And the same is true of KIPP as a whole.

First, a refresher for those who haven’t heard of KIPP before. It’s a first-rate chain of charter schools that started in Houston in 1994 and has grown to 52 schools in 16 states. In 2003, the first one opened in Dallas, KIPP TRUTH Academy.

(Forgive them their capitalization trespasses.)

KIPP schools are rigorous. Classes last until 5 p.m. There’s a mandatory three-week summer school. There are even – gasp! – classes on some Saturdays. In all, KIPP kids spend about 60 percent more time in class than kids at most schools – and that’s not counting homework.

But they’re not the no-fun places you might imagine from that description. All those extra hours mean there’s more time for field trips, extracurriculars, and art – the things that have been cut from a lot of public schools in the quest for higher test scores.

While Mr. Colmus has no great love for the TAKS his kids have knocked the socks off it. When they took the math TAKS as fifth-graders in 2004, their passing rate was 20 percentage points below the state average.

That wasn’t unexpected, since KIPP’s students are overwhelmingly poor and from some pretty tough neighborhoods.

Flash forward two years. In 2006, that same group of kids had a passing rate 23 percentage points ahead of the state average.

Those kids have been applying to some of the area’s top high schools, and the decisions have come in. Seven are going to schools like Hockaday, Greenhill, and Jesuit – most with full scholarships. Most of the rest are going to elite DISD magnet programs or other well-regarded schools. Two are headed to elite boarding schools in the Northeast.

‘You get a lot out of it’

A few years ago, these were just average Dallas kids. (Check that: They were below-average Dallas kids. Their TAKS scores were below DISD’s as a whole.) And now they’re getting ready to enter some of the best and most rigorous schools Texas and America have to offer.

“It may look tough, all the work,” said eighth-grader Jacob Sarabia, who is headed to Greenhill in the fall. “But you get a lot out of it.”

Devin Chapman is headed to the Middlesex School in Massachusetts. He wants to go to Harvard after that, then become a neurosurgeon. Before he enrolled at KIPP, he didn’t think much about the world outside Dallas. “It’s pretty amazing, when you learn about everything else out there,” he said.

What happens at places like KIPP TRUTH is important, because KIPP is beginning a truly audacious experiment in Houston. Its leaders recently announced a $100 million campaign to expand its presence in the city to 42 schools and 21,000 students – a sort of “shadow district.”

While KIPP’s leaders are too politic to put it this way, it’s a full-on challenge to the Houston school system – and, by extension, the other big urban districts of America. It also confronts the big question that has long nagged KIPP: Can it scale?

Sure, it has created small pockets of excellence in cities across the country. But can it create a big pocket? There have always been suspicions it couldn’t.

Sizable challenges

For instance, KIPP demands a lot of its teachers – much longer hours than traditional public schools. It’s not too tough to find enough of those idealists in a city to staff a school or two. But can you find enough to fill 42?

And how much of KIPP’s success is attributable to really talented principals – an elite subspecies of human that, despite the best efforts of scientists, has proved difficult to clone?

Or to put it another way: Imagine there were 10 KIPP schools in Dallas instead of one. Would there be 10 times as many spots available to their students at the Hockadays and Greenhills than there are today? How much of KIPP’s success is tied up with it being a small exception to the mediocre rule?

Steve Mancini, KIPP’s national spokesman, acknowledges the challenges ahead, but he’s optimistic. “Certainly the hardest challenge we find is finding quality people to teach,” he said. “But the more teachers you have, the more recruiters you have. With more people it becomes a movement.” And KIPP teachers are generally paid 15 to 20 percent more than their colleagues in regular schools.

Check back in a decade and we’ll know some answers. But until then, revel in the small-scale victories.

“Kids who don’t want to change shouldn’t come here,” Devin said.

Ex-Press Club leader’s crime record roils media scene; She blasts ‘witch hunt'; successor doubts ’06 Katies were legitimate

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Elizabeth Albanese may be one of the most honored journalists in North Texas. Or she could be at the center of one of its biggest media scandals.

The organization she led until last month, the Press Club of Dallas, is investigating whether she truly earned the four awards she won in a contest for which she helped arrange the judging.

Documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News show that Ms. Albanese has a criminal record under the name Lisa Albanese centered on allegations of theft. Former co-workers described a history of spinning lies. She also has a record of mental illness and delusional behavior.

“It’s incredible,” said the Press Club of Dallas Foundation’s president, Rand LaVonn, when told of The News’ findings. “I’m stunned.”

Ms. Albanese, in an interview with The News, at first said she was the victim of mistaken identity – that she had no criminal record.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about – these are very odd questions,” she said.

But an hour later, she called The News back and acknowledged that Lisa and Elizabeth Albanese are, in fact, one and the same. But she believes that she should not be judged for her past.

“I did have some problems when I was a kid in Virginia,” she said. “I got myself into some trouble. I did the things I needed to do – I paid my fines.”

According to her former co-workers, Ms. Albanese – who went by the name Lisa Albanese at the time – was a charming, smart, beautiful young woman. But she also invented medical conditions, a kidney transplant and at least one college degree.

“I told the newsroom, ‘I don’t believe anything she says unless I’ve seen it with my own eyes,'” said John Horan Jr., her former editor at a small newspaper in northern Virginia. “‘Check everything out, because she has a very active imagination.’ ”

In a psychiatric evaluation in a Houston forgery case in 1996, Ms. Albanese said she had “a history of psychiatric disturbance since late adolescence.”

The club’s investigation involves the 2006 Katie Awards, announced last November. The club-sponsored Katies are among the most prestigious journalism prizes in Texas, determining the best work by print and electronic media across six states.

Ms. Albanese has won a remarkable 10 of them over the last four years – a time period in which she also helped arrange the judging for the awards.

The controversy calls into question both the legitimacy and the future of the Katie Awards.

Questions surface

The case of Ms. Albanese has roiled the Dallas media world, mixing bruised egos with accusations of fraud. It began in November, after the announcement of her four big Katies wins. She was, until her resignation a few weeks ago, the Dallas bureau chief of The Bond Buyer, a financial publication based in New York.

Ms. Albanese won prizes for best business news story, best business feature story, best specialty reporting, and – most prestigious of all – best investigative reporting for a major-market newspaper.

Questions first arose after a journalist contacted Mr. LaVonn, president of the club foundation, which funds the club and provides college scholarships for aspiring journalists. The journalist, whom he would not name, suggested that Ms. Albanese’s victories might not have been legitimate.

Mr. LaVonn then asked Ms. Albanese for the names of the Katies judges for that year. She was unable to provide them, giving a variety of reasons, including her switch from one laptop to another, club officials said.

Repeated questioning still didn’t turn up the list of judges – but prompted further inquiries. Soon, foundation officials found that Ms. Albanese had been charging personal items to her Press Club credit cards – including purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue. Officials say she has since repaid those charges.

Foundation leaders also raised questions about the club’s management – including a fundraiser that was never held, even though the club spent about $11,000 to arrange it.

In response to the findings, the foundation cut off the stipend it provides to fund Press Club activities. In March, Ms. Albanese resigned the presidency. A few weeks earlier, she had quit her job at The Bond Buyer and become the public-relations person for First Southwest Co.

Club and foundation officials have launched an investigation, as first reported in the Dallas Business Journal last week.

“The foundation board is most disappointed at the allegations of misconduct by the former leadership,” Mr. LaVonn said. “We will not tolerate misconduct, and we demand the truth.”

Trouble in Houston

Lisa Albanese’s appearances in court records began in Houston in 1992. That’s when she was first charged with felony theft. A second felony theft charge followed seven months later. The charges related to a theft of airplane tickets from the travel agency where she worked.

At a hearing in July 1993, one charge was dismissed. For the other, she was given deferred adjudication and put on five years’ probation.

In January 1994, she moved to Virginia to take a reporting job at the small The Northern Virginia Daily. She covered a town of about 4,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley.

She quickly befriended an editor there named Susan Loving.

“We hit it off,” Ms. Loving said. “She was single and available to do things at the last minute. She would go to an art film or go into D.C. for a museum – which were things not everyone in that area would do.”

But Ms. Loving also noticed that Ms. Albanese’s personal stories didn’t always make sense. She would revise her age – once changing her age from 26 to 25 within a single sentence. She would talk about the accomplishments of her sisters one day and refuse to show their photos in a family photo album the next.

“She was very, very bright,” Ms. Loving said. “She was personable, nice to people she didn’t need to be. I liked Lisa a lot.”

On June 23, 1994, she was arrested and jailed for violating the terms of her Texas probation, according to a story in the Virginia newspaper where she worked.

In jail, Ms. Albanese told the jail nurse that she had had a kidney transplant and needed medications immediately. The jail contacted the newspaper, which sent Ms. Loving to her apartment to get the medicine.

“I spent 45 minutes at that place looking for this nonexistent medication because she made it all up,” Ms. Loving said. “We were all floored.”

Editors and reporters at the newspaper began swapping the tall tales they said she had told: that she had a fashion model mother, an opera-singer sister, a glamorous life living at the Plaza Hotel in New York, like the children’s book character Eloise.

“Most, if not all, of what Lisa said in this regard was untrue, her mother later told me,” her editor, Mr. Horan, wrote in a statement after her firing.

In her court appearances in Virginia, she made claims of mistaken identity, saying there was another Lisa Albanese with a birthday of Aug. 17 who was in trouble with the law in Texas, according to the Virginia newspaper story. In the end, she was returned to Texas.

Her record continued there, with a guilty plea to a misdemeanor theft charge in 1995. The next year, she was arrested in Houston as a fugitive from charges she faced in Maryland.

In Maryland, according to court records, she spent almost four weeks in jail after being arrested on 31 counts of theft, forgery and putting false documents into circulation. She skipped out on her bail, leading to another warrant for her arrest. State records do not indicate she ever returned to the court, and the charges were dropped five years later.

Then came the forgery charges. A Houston judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation, which found that she had had a long history of mental illness, including two hospital stays. She described suicide attempts and strange behavior, such as trying to walk from the Houston area to Austin. She also described a delusional belief that she was a correspondent for CNN. The psychiatrist said her symptoms were “clearly indicative of a bipolar disorder.”

The evaluation was enough for her to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. But the evaluation also included a hopeful note: that she believed she was stable, would seek treatment and hoped she would “get a job as a reporter.”

On the rise

She did just that. In 1999, “Elizabeth” Albanese took a job at The Bond Buyer. Soon thereafter, she became active in the Press Club. Eventually, she worked her way up to president.

The Bond Buyer covers the municipal bond industry and is widely read among the financial professionals it serves. She was one of its most productive reporters. The publication’s editor in chief, Nicholas Chesla, said there were no signs that she falsified any articles in her seven years there. (The Northern Virginia Daily also had no problems with her stories during her short time there.)

“We weren’t and we aren’t aware of any problems with her writing here,” Mr. Chesla said. “We certainly didn’t ask her to leave.”

About 2003, according to Ms. Albanese’s successor as Press Club president, she became involved in arranging the judging for the Katies. That’s also the year her winning streak began.

“I’m speechless,” the current president, Tom Stewart, said after learning of her past. “I can’t put into words how sad and sickened I am at that.”

In her first conversation with The News Thursday afternoon, Ms. Albanese denied all of the allegations against her. She said Albanese was not her maiden name but declined to say what was. She said she graduated from the University of Texas, which records show she did not. She said she had never gone by Lisa. “These are very personal questions, and I’m not sure where you’re going,” she said.

But in her later conversations with The News, she acknowledged her criminal record in three states, though she said she could not remember the details of each case. She also acknowledged her mental issues and her years of living as Lisa.

“I was a wreck of a kid,” she said. “I did lots of stupid stuff. I just don’t see the relevance of that to the Katie Awards.”

She said that, while she had not actively hidden her past, she told only those she felt needed to know. “I never felt it was necessary to open up my whole life,” she said.

“It’s hard when you’re in a situation where you’ve had problems in your life and you’ve had difficulty trying to overcome them. … I basically went along for the ride in the early ’90s. My brain was not functioning with the rest of society, or the rest of my body or whatever.”

Who judged contest?

Ms. Albanese said she had finally tracked down the names of the Katies judges last week and had turned them over to Mr. Stewart, her successor as Press Club president.

But Mr. Stewart is suspicious of their veracity. A week ago, he said, he e-mailed each of the “seven or eight” people on the list she gave him, asking them to confirm that they were judges. He received his first reply Friday, he said. But the reply contained a phone number that ended up being a nonfunctioning number at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis.

“My personal opinion now is that we didn’t have any judges for 2006,” he said. “I don’t know how long I can keep holding out hope.”

He said he was not sure what sort of future the Katie Awards might have.

Ms. Albanese said all of her awards were earned honestly. “I think I did a good job at The Bond Buyer,” she said. “This is a Press Club witch hunt.”

Staff researcher Molly Motley Blythe contributed to this report.

Audit: Dallas charters misused state funds; Exclusive: Schools continue to get taxpayers’ money despite problems

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

A state audit has found rampant financial mismanagement at three family-run Dallas charter schools – including fictional renovations, imaginary travel and hundreds of thousands of dollars unaccounted for.

The Texas Education Agency has forwarded its findings to the Dallas County district attorney’s office for possible prosecution. Federal regulators have also been notified.

The schools – A+ Academy in Dallas and two Inspired Visions Academy campuses in Dallas and Mesquite – were founded by Don and Karen Belknap. They have been the target of numerous state audits and investigations into allegations of nepotism, sloppy record-keeping and loose financial controls.

But they continue to receive taxpayer funding: well over $38 million in the last eight years. Charter schools are funded by tax dollars, but they are managed by private organizations and lightly regulated by the state.

“It’s some of the most mismanaged, unorganized, unethical business practices I’ve ever come across,” said Laura Kopec, a teacher at A+ Academy who resigned last week after the school tried to cut her pay midyear.

“I’m 40 years old. I’ve been in schools and in business. I’ve run a nonprofit. And I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Along with the allegations turned up in the audit, the schools face debt of about $500,000. That’s down from the roughly $1 million in debt they faced in November, when a former TEA official stepped in as interim superintendent.

“The records were in disarray when we got here,” said Karen Case, the former TEA official. “I think we’ve accomplished a lot in a few months.”

Messages left at the Belknaps’ home were not returned Thursday night.

Who’s to blame?

Many of the most serious allegations in the new audit involve Tommy Thomas, who was the schools’ superintendent for slightly over a year until last October. The audit raises concerns that he may have abused his position through a fraudulent reimbursement scheme. Among the findings of the audit:

*Mr. Thomas received more than $40,000 in “travel allowances” over a single school year. The allowances were never approved by the charter schools’ board, auditors found, and Mr. Thomas did not provide “adequate documentation” he had actually spent the money.

*Mr. Thomas ordered his business staff to cut him a check for more than $17,000 for “certification stipends.” According to his contract, he was due no such stipends.

*Mr. Thomas’ wife – now ex-wife – is alleged to have received payments from the charter schools totaling $124,000 over a 13-month period. She also was appointed to the schools’ board, in apparent violation of nepotism rules.

*Mr. Thomas was reimbursed more than $2,500 for furniture and the renovation of his office at the El Paso School of Excellence, a sister school run by the Belknaps. But that school’s founder, J.L. Lewis, says there is no such office.

“Mr. Tommy Thomas has never invested even one cent to renovate any office at the El Paso School of Excellence,” Dr. Lewis wrote in a signed affidavit in November.

Mr. Thomas disputed the charges Thursday night. He said the travel and certification allowances were part of his negotiated compensation packages and approved by the Belknaps. The office renovations were real, he said. And his ex-wife was hired by an assistant superintendent without his intervention, he said.

He said he is being made a scapegoat for the sins of the schools’ founders.

“The Belknaps are good people – they have good intentions,” he said. “They’re just not very good at what they do. They have no idea how to run a school.”

The Belknaps had previously run the school more directly – Mr. Belknap was superintendent, Mrs. Belknap was a principal, and numerous other family members and friends were on the payroll. Over time, state officials forced them to take a less formal leadership role. The Belknaps are currently assistant superintendents, and Mr. Belknap’s son is chairman of the board.

“With the Belknaps, even when they tell you you’re in charge, you never really are,” Mr. Thomas said. “Any corrections I would ask them to make, they’d do it up front. But they would never follow through and actually change the policy. They’d work on things in a roundabout way – that’s their way.”

Mr. Thomas said he believed the schools should be permanently closed.

Additional findings

Some of the other findings in the audit:

*One of the two Inspired Visions campuses was moved to a new facility last fall, but apparently without proper permission from state officials. That could force the school to repay most of its state funding for the first few weeks of the school year.

*The organization that officially oversees the charter schools, RFFA Inc., improperly repaid a $200,000 debt of its since-closed charter school, Rylie Faith Family Academy. The money was provided with taxpayer-provided funds from the family’s other charter schools, which the audit found was an “inappropriate use” of those funds.

*The schools regularly commingled funds between accounts and had only limited control of spending – including the use of presigned blank checks to pay bills when they came up.

*The Belknaps’ family church operated out of the schools’ administration building on Military Parkway and did not pay for the space or utilities – despite demands by the TEA in 2004 that the church pay those bills.

Making changes

Dr. Case, the former TEA official, said she and other staffers have been trying to cut into the debt by ending all unnecessary expenses and getting an outside audit of the schools’ finances. “We need electricity, and we buy toilet paper – that’s about it,” she said.

Among the proposed cuts was the midyear elimination of stipends teachers receive for extra work, like coaching a sports team or running the drama program. After teachers reacted negatively last week, however, those cuts were reversed.

The state’s investigative audit requires a number of actions, including paying back some of the funds in question and accepting a state financial overseer.

Despite the schools’ regular trouble, A+ Academy and Inspired Visions have never been seriously threatened with closure. State law places strict limits on TEA’s ability to close even the worst charter schools.

Dr. Case said that the audit’s findings should, again, not limit the schools’ ability to continue operations.

“I’m confident we’ll be open again in the fall,” she said.