By Joshua Benton
On this year’s third-grade TAKS reading test, an unlikely school finished No. 1 in the state.
Wilmer Elementary – a perennial underachiever in a district many consider the state’s worst – beat out the scores of 3,212 other elementary schools.
But substantial evidence, including a Dallas Morning News data analysis, indicates that cheating may be behind that success.
“This large of a gain is highly improbable due simply to improved instruction,” said Gregory Cizek, a professor at the University of North Carolina and a national expert on cheating.
After being informed of The News’ analysis of scores at Wilmer Elementary, the Texas Education Agency began a preliminary inquiry and is considering launching a full investigation. Last week, the agency decided it would analyze 2004 TAKS answer sheets at several Wilmer-Hutchins’ elementary schools to see if large numbers of answers had been erased and changed.
Wilmer educators strongly denied there was anything improper about their scores. “What are they suspicious of?” Wilmer Principal Geraldine Hobson asked. “We just worked real hard.”
James Damm, the district’s new interim superintendent, said he is aware of the cheating concerns and hopes state officials will determine the truth.
“Someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” said Mr. Damm, who took over last week after Superintendent Charles Matthews was indicted on charges of tampering with evidence in a TEA investigation. “But if they’re guilty, they’ll be held accountable. If that’s the case here, and there’s been any sort of tampering, the individuals involved can be prosecuted under felony law. It’s not a very happy thing to think about.”
Not a first for district
This isn’t the first time that improvements in Wilmer-Hutchins’ test scores have been attributed to cheating. In 1999, TEA decided to monitor the test-taking process at Alta Mesa Elementary after suspicions of cheating arose. The school’s test scores plummeted when the tests were administered in the presence of state officials.
This time, the questions are being asked at Wilmer Elementary, a historically underachieving campus. It has twice been labeled “low performing” by the state, most recently in 2000. That ranked the school in the bottom 3 percent of the state.
But in 2004, its students aced the third-grade reading test – the high-stakes exam that students must pass to be promoted to fourth grade. Of all elementary schools in the state that tested at least 30 students, Wilmer Elementary finished No. 1 – and by a significant margin over No. 2, Canyon Creek Elementary in the Austin suburb of Round Rock.
Almost all of Wilmer’s students got nearly 100 percent of the test’s questions correct.
Although schools with impoverished students typically fare worse academically than those in more affluent communities, Wilmer Elementary far outpaced the performance of the best schools in Highland Park, Plano, Carroll and every other wealthy district in the state. More than 90 percent of the test-takers at Wilmer were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced school lunch.
Among the most striking results were the scores of Wilmer’s limited-English-proficient students. These students – typically recent immigrants from Latin America – by definition have difficulties speaking, reading and writing English. Last year, Texas’ limited-English students had a passing rate 9 percentage points lower than the state average on the third-grade reading test.
But at Wilmer Elementary, those students did extraordinarily well on the TAKS. All of Wilmer’s children with limited English skills had perfect or nearly perfect scores on the reading test. They, as a group, outscored every other school in the state.
“Clearly these results ought to be looked into,” said Dr. Cizek, who is also a member of the committee that advises Texas officials on how to run the state’s testing system.
He said it was conceivable that a school as poor and underachieving as Wilmer could end up with the best test scores in the state. “It’s about as likely as the Texans winning the Super Bowl,” he said. “I suppose it could happen. But it’s highly unlikely.”
Principal is proud
Wilmer’s principal, Ms. Hobson, said that’s exactly what happened. “For us to have beaten Highland Park and all the others, I say thank you, Jesus,” she said. “I’m real proud of that. We have absolutely nothing to hide.”
“We were very confident before the test,” said Janeece Choice, one of the two third-grade teachers at Wilmer. “The children had learned what they needed to know, how to analyze and summarize.”
But the remarkable test scores at Wilmer are not duplicated in other grades or on other tests. On the fourth-grade reading test, Wilmer’s students finished in the bottom 20 percent of the state. In fifth grade, scores were also well below the state average.
The amazing scores came only in the one grade where poor test scores have severe consequences – and, according to cheating experts, educators have a greater incentive to fudge.
“Cheating responds to the costs and the benefits,” said Brian Jacob, a Harvard public-policy professor who studied seven years of test scores in Chicago schools. By searching for unlikely patterns on answer sheets and unexplained jumps in scores, he found strong evidence of educators cheating in about 4 percent of classrooms.
But that percentage increased if a test was high-stakes, as the third-grade reading TAKS is. Cheating was 30 percent to 40 percent more common in classrooms taking a high-stakes test than in those where a test had no concrete consequences, he said.
Analyzing the scores
The News analysis was performed by examining the scale scores of each school in the state. TEA typically reports only a school’s passing rate – how many of its students did well enough to meet state standards on the TAKS.
A school’s average scale score gives more detail. It indicates whether students were barely passing the test or if – as at Wilmer Elementary – they were getting nearly every question correct.
To put it in traditional classroom terms, scale scores can tell you whether a school’s students are squeaking by with a D-minus average or if they’re all scoring an A-plus.
Lionel Churchill, a community activist and critic of the administration, said several district employees have told him they believe there was TAKS cheating in several Wilmer-Hutchins elementary schools. He said many of the district’s children had excellent TAKS scores despite having poor grades. Some students, he said, were recommended for summer school despite near-perfect scores on the TAKS.
“There’s a lot of cheating going on,” he said. “The scores just do not match up.”
Last month, Mr. Churchill raised his concerns in a formal complaint to TEA. His suspicions are based in part on how much better the district’s students scored in its elementary schools than in later grades.
In 2003, 77.2 percent of Wilmer-Hutchins’ fifth-graders passed the math TAKS. But in sixth grade, the passing rate dropped to 32 percent. There was a similar drop in reading: 75.7 percent in fifth grade, 49 percent in sixth.
Sixth grade is the year when students move up to Kennedy-Curry Middle School. Test scores at Kennedy-Curry and Wilmer-Hutchins High School have long been among the lowest in the state.
Susan Barnes, TEA’s associate commissioner of standards and programs, said that the unusual test scores at Wilmer Elementary “are of interest.” But she said the agency had not done enough investigating to decide whether any state action is needed. “We’ll look at everything that we think is appropriate,” she said.
Rebuttal to critics
At an October school board meeting, board president Luther Edwards said the high test scores were a rebuttal to those who criticized Wilmer-Hutchins – currently the subject of federal and state criminal investigation and likely to soon be taken over by the TEA.
“You showed them,” he told a group of students and teachers in the audience. “You knocked the bottom out of those test scores. You sent a message.”
Staff writer Holly K. Hacker contributed to this report.