By Joshua Benton
James Wright was having some trouble with the science TAKS test last year at Wilmer-Hutchins’ Alta Mesa Elementary. He says his teacher was willing to help.
“The teacher would walk around the class during the test and be like, ‘Hey, that’s wrong,’” said James, now a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Kennedy-Curry Middle School.
“You’d go through the answers and you’d say, ‘Is this the right one?’ They’d say ‘nope.’ And you’d say, ‘Is this the right one?’ And they’d say ‘nope’ until you got the right one. Then they’d say ‘Yeah’ and nod their head.”
He’s one of several students and teachers in Wilmer-Hutchins schools who have come forward to support suspicions first raised by a Dallas Morning News data analysis that cheating took place on the TAKS tests.
As a result of The News analysis, the Texas Education Agency began a preliminary inquiry into the possibility of TAKS cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins. On Friday, the agency announced it is upgrading its inquiry to a full investigation.
Interim Superintendent James Damm said he strongly suspects that cheating occurred in at least one of the district’s schools, although he cautioned he had not closely examined test scores at all campuses. “Is it possible those scores are real? Yes,” he said. “Is it likely? No. Statistically, it’s highly unlikely there wasn’t something amiss there.”
He said he has told the district’s principals that if any of them knowingly allowed cheating at their schools, they will be treated as if they did the cheating themselves. “If somebody has violated the law, they’re going to be held accountable. These are felonies.”
Falsifying testing documents is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The News’ initial analysis focused on Wilmer Elementary, which despite a history of poor academic performance managed to have the state’s highest scores on the third-grade reading TAKS test last year. Even the school’s students with limited English skills outscored most students in the state.
Those concerns are supported by a former fourth-grade teacher, who said she suspected cheating from the day she started work there last year. She noticed immediately that half of her class either couldn’t read at all or couldn’t comprehend the few words they could make out.
These were the same students who had passed the high-stakes third-grade TAKS test the year before with flying colors.
“Those poor babies,” said Addie Stepney, who no longer works at Wilmer. “If someone had really worked with them, I think most of them could have passed, eventually. But the best scores in the state? Are you kidding?”
Ms. Stepney said several teachers openly acknowledged that cheating was going on. When she raised the issue with Wilmer Principal Geraldine Hobson, she said she got no response. In the middle of the school year, the principal moved Ms. Stepney from a fourth-grade classroom to second grade – a grade in which no TAKS test is given.
Her theory: “They didn’t want someone asking questions.”
Ms. Hobson did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story. But earlier this month she denied there had been any cheating on the TAKS at her school.
After being transferred to a second-grade classroom, Ms. Stepney went on a medical leave for much of the spring semester last year. The district chose not to renew her contract for this year.
Ms. Stepney had previously taught third grade in Hearne, a small, poor district near College Station with its own history of low performance. “The third-graders there were miles ahead of the fourth-graders I had at Wilmer,” she said.
She kept a journal throughout the fall semester, and its entries show the progression of her suspicions.
From her first week on the job: Two teachers were questioning me about several students in my room. They kept talking about how they could not read but they passed the reading test. Every day they would ask me if the children could read. Finally I became concerned about that so I asked to see the records from 3rd grade. They had all passed the reading test so I let it go.
Later that month: Then I met up with a teacher in the restroom and she walked up to me and said, “Those students in your room are special, they cannot read.” I said, “Well they passed the test last year.” She said, “They all copied and were helped.”
A few weeks later: I was working one on one with a student with oral reading. He said “I can not read.” I said you took the reading test last year and passed, how did you read it.” He said his teacher read it to me and told me the answer.”
Ms. Stepney wrote that she talked to another teacher to see if such activity was normal: I asked the teacher about it and she said “I am not going to risk my license like that.” “People around here do all types of things.”
She described, in her journal and in an interview, an atmosphere where cheating was common – even on tests other than the high-stakes TAKS. For example, she said that when students took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in October 2003, some of the test booklets had the correct answers already circled.
Alta Mesa scores
At Wilmer Elementary, The News data analysis found strong evidence of cheating on the third-grade reading test, but not on other tests in other grades, where scores continued to be poor.
However, Alta Mesa scored highly in all grades and on all tests. Some students said that’s because cheating was widespread.
“We were doing our test and sitting in our desk,” said Guyler Easter, now a seventh-grader at Kennedy-Curry Middle in Wilmer-Hutchins. She attended Alta Mesa in the fifth grade.
“When the test started, some people didn’t know the answers, so they’d raise their hand and the teacher would come up to them,” she said. “The teacher read the question and then gave us the answer.”
The teachers also enlisted other children in the cheating, she said: “If they were tired of helping, they would ask another kid to help.”
“It’s really surprising,” said Loyce Bullock, a minister and guardian to both James and Guyler. “You send your kid there to learn – not for this.”
Alta Mesa has been accused of cheating before. In 1999, TEA detected unusually high numbers of erasures on the school’s test answer sheets from several previous years. The agency sent test monitors to Alta Mesa in order to prevent cheating.
With state officials watching, the school’s TAAS passing rate dropped from 82.9 percent to 49.9 percent – ranking it among the state’s worst schools. Its scores remained extremely low for the next several years.
But Alta Mesa’s scores have climbed again, to even higher heights than they reached before the last cheating investigation. This year, its scores were high enough for Alta Mesa to be rated “exemplary,” the state’s top label. Only the top 6.6 percent of Texas schools were so honored.
The school’s principal, Jatis McCollister, fervently denies there is any cheating at Alta Mesa. “The kids did well, and because they did well, they’re being made victims of their own success,” she said. “The media has decided that we’re cheating.”
She said that she was not at the school during the last investigation and that the current turnaround is based on positive work done by her and her staff since she arrived at the school in 2001.
Mr. Damm said he had not examined the school’s test scores but had visited Alta Mesa and found some positive signs. “They look like they’re doing a lot of really good things there,” he said.
Most schools – particularly poor schools like Alta Mesa – struggled when the old TAAS test was replaced with the more difficult TAKS in 2003. But Alta Mesa’s scores went in the opposite direction.
In 2002, under TAAS, Alta Mesa’s fourth-graders were in the bottom 10 percent of the state. The next year they jumped to the 73rd percentile statewide. Last year, Alta Mesa reached the 92nd percentile. Since the end of TAAS, Alta Mesa has had the second-highest increase in performance of the state’s more than 3,000 elementary schools.
Ms. McCollister said that increase coincides with her arrival and her installation of a new staff. “I don’t think a teacher would want to jeopardize his or her certification by cheating,” she said. “It took three years to build this staff. It takes a while to build this up. You can’t say our children aren’t capable of doing well.”
The state education agency has made several moves in response to the cheating concerns. Investigators will be arriving at the district Monday, questioning teachers and possibly students. In addition, the agency will send test monitors to Wilmer-Hutchins schools in the spring, when the TAKS will be taken again. Mr. Damm said he expects the district’s test scores to drop when that happens.
One top district administrator, who asked not to be named, said several officials have suspected cheating for some time. But their concerns went unreported because they feared being disciplined if they reported illegal or inappropriate activity to supervisors.
Mr. Damm said that hesitation to report wrongdoing must change. “The culture of the district has been a problem,” he said. “If someone has done this, they’ll be terminated. They can come back and sue us, fine. But if something is wrong, we’re going to take care of it.”
The interim superintendent, not quite two weeks into his job, said he’s no longer surprised to hear new allegations about the district, which is also the subject of multiple criminal investigations.
“Every time I open a door, there’s another skeleton or two behind it,” he said. “Hopefully, someday we’ll run out of doors.”