State plans TAKS cheating inquiry; TEA also will hire expert to help prevent, detect deceit

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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AUSTIN – The Texas Education Agency will begin analyzing test scores for unusual gaps and swings, modeling the effort on a Dallas Morning News investigation that found suspect scores at nearly 400 Texas schools.

The state’s education commissioner, Shirley Neeley, also announced Monday that the agency will hire an outside testing expert to improve procedures for preventing and detecting cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

“The whole situation is so embarrassing,” Dr. Neeley said at an Austin news conference called to address the News investigation. “The vast, vast majority of teachers are professionals who would never think of doing anything like this.”

The News analysis looked for schools with radical swings in student test performance – for example, schools where students performed among the state’s worst one year and at the top of the state the next. It found nearly 400 schools where score swings were at levels educational researchers considered suspicious.

As a result of the News’ analysis, cheating investigations are under way in most of the state’s large urban school districts, including Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. Last week, Houston and Dallas announced plans to send hundreds of test monitors to watch over suspect schools as they administer state tests this spring. Houston has also created a district department to investigate cheating allegations.

Dr. Neeley said the agency had not yet decided exactly how it would analyze test scores to search for cheaters. The News methodology examined the average scale scores of students in each grade at every school. TEA officials have access to more detailed data on individual students, which could allow for more precise detection of unusual gains.

Joining the commissioner at Monday’s news conference were the school superintendents of Houston and Dallas, the head of the state’s teacher certification board and representatives of every major education association in the state – including groups representing teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members.

Dr. Neeley defended the state’s policies for policing cheating but acknowledged that the News analysis raised “serious questions.”

“We will have zero tolerance for cheating,” Dr. Neeley said.

State officials said they have always been aggressive in going after cheaters but acknowledged that only two teachers have lost their licenses because of cheating in the last 10 years.

Dr. Neeley said she is willing to do “whatever it takes” to ensure a secure testing system but called Texas’ system state of the art. She said the agency hoped to have the outside expert in place within the next few weeks.

One change the agency will consider is using data on erased answers on TAKS tests. During the grading process, TEA obtains data on Texas schools that have unusually high numbers of erasures on their answer sheets. But the agency chooses not to examine the data unless someone comes forward with concrete evidence of cheating.

TEA also will create a tracking system for cheating allegations that will do a better job of following up on complaints, Dr. Neeley said. She also said the agency will begin informing Texas districts if unusual score swings are detected on recent TAKS tests.

The agency will be asking the Legislature for more funds so it can add staff to investigate cheating, Dr. Neeley said.

But legislative leaders signaled that the agency could be in for tough questioning when the session opens today.

“This is no different than the Enron scandal in our public schools,” said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, an Arlington Republican and chairman of the House Public Education Committee. “TEA is not doing a good enough job.”

Mr. Grusendorf said cheating is certain to come up in hearings on TEA’s sunset process – the regular legislative approval all state agencies must go through periodically to continue functioning. TEA is up for sunset approval this year.

“We need to clean that up and make sure that kind of thing does not happen,” Mr. Grusendorf said. “They are the agency responsible for overseeing state tests statewide. They need to hold school districts accountable.”

Other legislators said they hope TEA can improve its cheating policing without lawmakers getting involved.

“TEA has the responsibility to maintain the integrity of the testing system,” Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said. “It’s their job already. I don’t know what else the Legislature can do.”

Mr. Hochberg said educator cheating is in some ways a natural response to the pressures officials put on schools to raise scores.

“It’s surprising to me that there isn’t even more cheating going on,” he said.