Signs of cheating at 114 area schools; State asks campuses to check ’05 TAKS scores that raised suspicions

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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A state-sponsored analysis has flagged 114 North Texas schools as having suspicious scores on the 2005 TAKS test – scores that could suggest cheating by students or teachers.

Dallas, the area’s largest district, led the way with 39 schools. Plano ISD, with nine schools on the list, had the area’s second-highest total. Fort Worth ISD had seven, the Lewisville and Richardson school districts each had six, and McKinney ISD had five. Five charter schools also made the list.

Texas Education Agency officials are quick to point out that inclusion on the list is not conclusive evidence that cheating occurred.

“We’re not pointing a finger,” said Shirley Neeley, the state education commissioner. “We’re just saying, ‘Folks, once again it’s been pointed out there may be some testing irregularities.’ We’re asking them to just double-check.”

The analysis was performed by a Utah company named Caveon. Statewide, it found 609 schools with suspect scores.

Caveon flagged schools for review if their scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills showed certain characteristics, then put them into one of four categories:

• Schools where students had extreme, statistically unlikely one-year gains in test scores.

• Schools where students answered questions in unusual patterns – for instance, getting all the easy questions wrong and the harder questions right.

• Schools where test documents had an unusual number of wrong answers erased and replaced with correct ones.

• Schools where large numbers of students had identical or virtually identical answers – suggesting they may have copied answers from one another.

It was that fourth category that tripped up the most schools, particularly in lower-income areas. For example, of the 39 Dallas schools flagged, 32 had groups of unusually similar answer sheets.

“We are always reviewing our processes for test security and seeing what we can improve,” Dallas ISD spokesman Donald Claxton said.

In contrast, schools that had unusually large test-score gains were more likely to be in the suburbs – including in traditionally high-performing districts like Highland Park and Carroll.

“It’s kind of like the old axiom, ‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ ” said Neil Wellman, director of assessment for Lewisville ISD. Five of that district’s six flagged schools showed unusual gains, but Dr. Wellman said they were earned honestly.

“We can explain those gains: We just did a lot of teaching,” he said.

A letter from Ms. Neeley dated May 31 notified school districts if their campuses were on the list. The letter asked districts to perform “any investigations you deem necessary” but stressed that factors other than cheating could be at work.

TEA hired Caveon last summer after a series of Dallas Morning News stories found evidence of educator-led cheating in many Texas schools. Later investigations found proof of cheating in the Dallas, Houston and Wilmer-Hutchins school districts. Wilmer-Hutchins will be shut down permanently later this month as a result of the cheating there.