Houston district says monitors will police TAKS testing; Move follows evidence that educators helped students cheat

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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HOUSTON – Houston school officials will unleash an army of test monitors to make sure their teachers and principals aren’t helping students cheat on the TAKS test, the district’s superintendent said Thursday.

The move is a response to a Dallas Morning News investigation that found strong evidence that educators in Houston and elsewhere were giving students answers or altering test documents to improve student scores.

“The most important thing we have as a school system is our integrity,” Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said.

The district will also create a department, the Office of the Inspector General, to do a better job detecting and pursuing educators who cheat.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Independent School District is considering creating its own team of monitors who would watch for TAKS cheating by test administrators.

Last month, The News’ statistical analysis of scores on the TAKS tests found 25 Houston schools with highly suspect performance – schools where student scores swung wildly or improved by improbable amounts in one year. Since then, The News has analyzed additional test data from 2003 and found more suspect schools, bringing the total to 46.

In all, the analysis has found nearly 400 Texas schools with suspicious scores. Texas has about 7,700 public schools.

Dr. Saavedra said Houston ISD has duplicated the newspaper’s research and is investigating dozens of its schools for possible cheating.

“It is not acceptable to our board or to me or to anyone here that HISD should have to rely on the media to point out anomalies in test scores,” Dr. Saavedra said. “That’s our job.”

At the morning announcement – which Dr. Saavedra called “one of the most important press conferences our district will ever have” – he would not say how many of Houston’s 300 schools the district is currently investigating. He did say the number was more than a dozen but less than 50.

‘Hard to explain’

Dr. Saavedra said that in each of those schools, students had shown “growth so excessive that it’s hard to explain.” He would not say whether he believed teachers in the schools were cheating but called the test data he had seen “highly suspicious.”

Many of the schools under investigation are among the state’s most lauded. Sanderson Elementary is a National Blue Ribbon campus where fifth-graders last year had the best scores in the state, beating nearly 3,000 other schools. But fourth-graders finished in the bottom 2 percent of the state in the same subject, math.

For years, Wesley Elementary has been lauded by President Bush and many conservative education activists as a model for urban schools nationwide. But concerns about its test scores have led Houston officials to hire an outside law firm to investigate Wesley and two neighboring elementary schools.

Dr. Saavedra said the Wesley investigation was being handled by an outside firm because it was more complex than other investigations. In a May memo, however, the district’s testing coordinator said an external inquiry was desirable “because of the strong political overtones of such an investigation.” Wesley and its affiliated schools were strongly supported by Secretary of Education Rod Paige when he was Houston superintendent.

Kevin Hoffman, a Houston school board member whose district includes both Sanderson and Wesley, said he had heard rumors about possible cheating for some time but had thought HISD was doing a better job of policing improper behavior.

“As awkward as this sounds, I want to thank the Morning News for bringing this to our attention,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that our district officials weren’t able to find these anomalies on their own.”

Support from teachers

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said she supported the district’s moves. She said her organization gets multiple calls each spring from teachers who say they have been told by principals to cheat. In many cases, it’s difficult to get those teachers to make a formal complaint, she said.

“They’re scared to death of what the district will do to them,” she said.

The district will send between 300 and 600 monitors into the schools on testing days. Dr. Saavedra said many will be retired teachers or school administrators who will be specially trained to detect improper testing activity. Others will be district administrators.

Half the monitors will be sent to schools where officials have concerns about the accuracy of test scores. The other half will go to randomly selected schools. No school will know whether they have a monitor until the day of the test, Dr. Saavedra said.

In Dallas, district officials will be discussing a monitoring system similar to Houston’s “in the next 24 to 48 hours,” district spokesman Donald Claxton said Thursday.

Last month’s News analysis found 21 Dallas schools with suspicious scores. After data from the 2003 administration of the test were analyzed, that number grew to 35 schools.

Unlike Houston, which began an investigation into all its schools’ scores after The News’ study, Dallas has done no such broad-based analysis, Mr. Claxton said. The only Dallas school under investigation is Harrell Budd Elementary, where The News analysis found questionable fourth-grade scores.

Dallas interim Superintendent Larry Groppel is scheduled to appear at an Austin press conference Monday alongside Dr. Saavedra and state education Commissioner Shirley Neeley. They are expected to discuss the state agency’s reaction to The News findings.