DISD probing TAKS scores; FW also joins Houston in investigating schools that might have cheated

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The Dallas and Fort Worth school districts are investigating dozens of their schools for possible cheating on the TAKS test.

The schools were identified by a Dallas Morning News investigation that found suspect scores at nearly 400 schools statewide – schools where test scores swung unexpectedly from poor to stellar.

“Cheating will not be tolerated,” Dallas interim Superintendent Larry Groppel said in a statement. “We will thoroughly examine the scope of potential past improprieties.”

Dallas is examining scores at 35 schools across the district. The district requested access to The News’ findings Friday, more than three weeks after the newspaper first reported that dozens of Dallas schools were suspect.

Fort Worth is looking into scores at eight of its schools identified by The News.

“This is serious business,” interim Superintendent Joe Ross said. “We’ve got to look into it, no ifs, ands or buts.”

The districts’ moves came a day after the Houston school district announced a series of changes to prevent teachers from cheating on the TAKS, also prompted by the News investigation. Houston’s changes include sending monitors to classrooms on test day – a move Dallas says it will match – and creating an investigative department.

Dallas officials began investigating one school, Harrell Budd Elementary in east Oak Cliff, last month after The News found it had one of the most suspicious scoring patterns in the state.

Last year, Budd’s third-graders finished in the bottom 4 percent of the state in reading, but its fourth-graders had the second-highest scores of more than 3,000 Texas schools. The only school to top it was a Houston magnet school for gifted children. That’s despite the fact that 40 percent of Budd’s student body has trouble speaking English.

But the district did not look into the other schools until after Houston ISD announced it was examining scores at all the district’s schools and investigating more than 20 schools.

One of the mechanisms that Dallas officials will use in their investigations is comparing TAKS scores with performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, another test that Dallas students take.

Donald Claxton, DISD spokesman, said the district has established that the high-scoring students at Harrell Budd didn’t fare nearly as well on the lower-stakes Iowa Test. He said the Budd investigation should be concluded by the end of January.

Looking forward, Dallas officials said they would place monitors into many of the district’s schools on TAKS testing days this spring. Mr. Claxton said the number of monitors was secret – “We want to keep the element of surprise” – but that it would probably be between 100 and 200.

Houston officials have said they will use between 300 and 600 monitors in their district, which is about 30 percent larger than Dallas.

In addition, Mr. Claxton said the district will provide additional training for teachers.

Mr. Ross, the Fort Worth superintendent, said he had examined The News’ findings and said a district inquiry was necessary.

Fort Worth’s most unusual scores were at A.M. Pate Elementary, where last spring’s fifth-grade scores spiked unexpectedly from the year before. In 2004, those students finished in the top 5 percent of Texas. The year before, when those same students were fourth-graders, they finished in the bottom 3 percent of the state.

“I don’t want to say anything to cast doubts on anyone at this point in time,” Mr. Ross said of the schools under scrutiny, “because there may be a logical reason for the scores. But statistically it looks odd.”

Both Dallas and Fort Worth officials said they plan to start performing the sort of statistical analysis The News did each year so officials can detect suspect schools without help from the media. So did an official in the Austin school district, where seven schools had statistically unusual swings in test scores.

“We definitely want to go ahead and start doing something like this on our own,” said Holly Williams, director of the district’s department of program evaluation. “We wish we had thought of it.”

The Texas Education Agency has the ability to perform a similar analysis on all Texas schools, including those in smaller districts that may not have the technical capacity to do it on their own.

But officials choose not to, saying that unexplainable swings in scores are only circumstantial evidence and that the agency does not have the staff to duplicate The News’ work. State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley and other state officials are holding a news conference Monday to address the Texas Education Agency’s reaction to the newspaper’s findings.