Monitors descend for TAKS testing; 70 at Wilmer-Hutchins called agency’s biggest anti-cheating effort ever

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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More than 70 state employees turned out at Wilmer-Hutchins schools on Tuesday to ensure that there was no cheating on the first day of TAKS testing. State officials said it was probably the largest test-monitoring effort the Texas Education Agency has launched.

“We wanted to give the kids the best, most secure testing environment possible,” said Sharon Jackson, the state’s deputy associate commissioner for standards and alignment, who spent Tuesday overseeing testing at Alta Mesa Elementary, one of the schools that previously had suspicious scores.

The monitors arrived at Wilmer-Hutchins at the request of state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley after a Dallas Morning News investigation found suspicious test scores in several district schools.

The Wilmer-Hutchins monitors – all employees of the state education service center in Richardson – were present in every classroom where a test was being administered.

The TEA began an investigation into cheating at Wilmer-Hutchins in November, and state officials say a preliminary report will be issued in the next few weeks. The Texas Rangers have also begun a criminal investigation. The principal of Wilmer Elementary resigned unexpectedly shortly after the News investigation found highly unlikely score swings at her school.

Other districts ramped up their monitoring efforts as a result of the News investigation, which found unusual swings in test scores at nearly 400 Texas schools. But none matched the one-monitor-per-classroom standard the TEA used in Wilmer-Hutchins.

In Houston, officials have trained 600 monitors. That’s enough to have two monitors in every Houston school, although not all were used Tuesday because not every school administered the test. This week’s tests are being given to students in grades 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11.

“The message we want to make loud and clear is: Don’t even think about cheating,” said Houston schools spokesman Terry Abbott.

The monitors are ensuring the security of testing materials, including witnessing the breaking of special seals on test documents, Mr. Abbott said.

Last week, Houston officials announced the firing of two teachers and the demotion of the principal at Sanderson Elementary, where The News found extremely unlikely fifth-grade math scores.

A district investigation found more than a dozen Sanderson fifth-graders who said teachers checked their answer sheets and had them redo the questions they had answered incorrectly.

Dallas schools also deployed a new system of monitors to oversee testing Tuesday, but district spokesman Donald Claxton would not say how many monitors there were.

Every school administering the TAKS this week will receive at least one visit from monitors, he said. But in schools that have had unusual test score patterns in the past, “certainly there’ll be a more concentrated effort,” he said.

Dallas officials are investigating the possibility of cheating at dozens of schools with unusual test score swings. The district’s final report is expected soon.

The TEA has previously sent testing monitors into Texas schools during or after cheating investigations, but state officials said they couldn’t remember any previous effort on the same scale as that at Wilmer-Hutchins.

Normally, test booklets and forms are delivered to a school district several days before test day. But Wilmer-Hutchins’ test documents were delivered to the Richardson service center to keep them secure. “There’s not a period of time where the tests are out of our sight,” said Sandy Maddox, the service center’s associate director for instruction.

State officials said Tuesday afternoon they had encountered no problems monitoring in Wilmer-Hutchins. “Everyone was congenial,” Dr. Maddox said. “I didn’t feel any negativity whatsoever.”