TEA wants full list of suspect schools; But expanded inquiry into TAKS cheating not certain, state says

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Reversing course, the Texas Education Agency said Tuesday that it wants a complete list of schools with suspicious scores on last year’s state exams. But officials made no promises to investigate those additional campuses.

Officials said Tuesday they have asked for the names of all schools that were flagged as suspect by Caveon, a Utah test-security company. The agency hired Caveon to look for evidence of possible cheating on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

On Sunday, The Dallas Morning News reported that the TEA’s list of suspected cheaters left off at least 167 schools that Caveon had flagged. Neither the TEA nor the schools knew which campuses they were.

Last week, agency officials said they did not ask Caveon for the names of the additional schools because they did not consider them worthy of investigation. That’s because Caveon used a different type of analysis to identify the additional schools.

“I think that over the weekend, people thought about the situation and just realized we need the complete list,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman.

“And whether we take further action – we’ll have to decide once we see that list.”

Schools’ needs

Jim Nelson, outgoing superintendent of the Richardson Independent School District, said schools need to know whether they’re on Caveon’s list. They also need to understand why they were flagged as having potential problems.

“I think if we’re going to be able to conduct investigations locally, we have to have all the information used to make their findings,” Mr. Nelson said.

He said more data would be particularly important for the difficult task of investigating alleged cheating from over a year ago. “The only way you can check is to have as much data as you can,” Mr. Nelson said. “If you’re looking for specific acts from that long ago, I think it’s going to be very difficult.”

The analysis

In its analysis, Caveon looked for unusual test scores at the classroom and school levels. While schoolwide anomalies involve larger numbers of students, they can also be triggered by a smaller percentage of students with suspect scores.

Robert Scott, the TEA’s chief deputy commissioner, said he believed the schoolwide problems were less egregious than the classroom-level anomalies Caveon found.

“It’s like looking for a problem citywide or doing it by looking in a specific ZIP code,” he said. “The classroom-based list is more focused.”

Mr. Scott said the agency is determining how best to investigate some of the schools Caveon identified. A plan should be announced by the end of this week, he said.

State incentives

The state’s first priority will be 14 schools that are supposed to receive $60,000 to $220,000 each for improved test scores under a new incentive plan of Gov. Rick Perry’s. Other schools will also be investigated, although the agency has not announced how many.

The agency still has not requested detailed information on what suspicious behavior Caveon found in each of the schools it flagged. “I don’t think we’re far enough in our investigation to warrant that,” Mr. Scott said.

Caveon’s two analyses found 609 schools and 702 classrooms with unusual scores. State officials originally did not plan to identify the schools or tell them they had suspicious scores.

Shifting response

But the TEA released a list in early June, after The News and other newspapers requested it. That list identified only schools with suspicious classroom scores.

Once the list came out, the agency said it planned only a limited investigation into some of the flagged schools where other testing violations had already been reported.

But after media reported the TEA’s plan, the agency announced it would do a more thorough investigation.

TEA officials said Tuesday that the search for score anomalies is a new kind of analysis for the agency, so they’re learning along the way.

“We are having to feel our way along on this,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “The more we think about it, the more questions that arise.”