By Joshua Benton
Wilmer-Hutchins has seen one of its schools’ test scores jump unexpectedly before.
In the late 1990s, passing rates on the old Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test soared at Alta Mesa Elementary. From 1994 to 1997, the fourth-grade passing rate rose by 53.1 percentage points.
In 1999, the Texas Education Agency performed a routine analysis on the TAAS answer sheets of students at Alta Mesa and other schools throughout the state. It found an exceptionally high number of answers on Alta Mesa’s test forms had been erased and replaced. In addition, a much higher than expected number of the erasures changed incorrect answers into correct ones.
TEA officials suspected cheating, but agency policy required them to request that Wilmer-Hutchins perform its own investigation. Wilmer-Hutchins’ superintendent at the time, Stanton Lawrence, complained in a letter to TEA that it was “neither practical nor reasonable” for the agency to expect the district to have the expertise to perform such an investigation. But the district went ahead.
In their final report, Wilmer-Hutchins officials conceded there was “compelling evidence” that the level of erasures was “excessive.” But Alta Mesa’s principal and the accused teachers told district leaders that they had not cheated. The report said it found “no evidence that would cause us to question” the educators’ denials. As a result, the report indicates no educators were fired or disciplined.
But in 1999, TEA decided to send a team of monitors to Alta Mesa to administer the test. With state officials making sure answer sheets were not doctored and answers were not given to students, Alta Mesa’s test scores plummeted.
The year before, for example 75 percent of Alta Mesa’s fourth-graders had passed all sections of the TAAS. In 1999, only 33.8 percent passed.
District officials asked Alta Mesa’s principal, Ray Smith, for his explanation of the drop. According to the report, “teacher morale” was the primary reason he gave.
Mr. Smith is currently principal of Wilmer-Hutchins’ performing-arts high school.
TEA stopped monitoring Alta Mesa’s testing procedures after 1999. Since then, the school’s test scores have increased again. In September, Alta Mesa was rated “exemplary” because of those scores. Only the top 6.6 percent of Texas schools earned that rating.