TAKS inquiry gets a boost; TEA adds investigators and task force for cheating probe

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Calling the prevention of cheating “our highest priority,” the Texas Education Agency is tripling its number of investigators and preparing inquiries of the schools where test scores are the most suspicious.

The agency will also create an independent task force to oversee the investigations, which will begin in September. But it’s still unknown how many schools will be investigated.

“The Texas Education Agency is taking this matter very seriously,” Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley wrote in a letter to all district superintendents Friday.

The moves are in response to a report released in May by Caveon, a Utah test-security firm. TEA hired Caveon to analyze scores on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and determine if any students or educators were cheating.

Caveon flagged more than 600 schools for a variety of suspect test patterns: students who seemed to get too smart too fast, score sheets with too many erasures or classrooms where too many students had suspiciously similar answers.

“I think we have to restore the public’s faith in our testing system,” Dr. Neeley said in an interview.

TEA now employs five investigators who look into allegations of testing improprieties.

That’s up from the three the agency had before a series of stories by The Dallas Morning News revealed evidence of cheating in Texas schools. With the new increase, there will be 15 investigators.

The members of the task force will be announced next week, Dr. Neeley said. They will include educators and business people, she said, and will be given a substantial say in determining how investigations proceed.

“We’ll propose things to them, but they may want to do things differently,” she said. “These are going to be people highly respected in the community.”

The agency has not determined how it will choose which schools to investigate. But Dr. Neeley hinted that the schools flagged for outsized gains in test scores may be under less scrutiny than those flagged for other reasons.

“I know how hard every school in the state works to get those gains, so I know schools can explain those gains,” she said. “But the other anomalies are very difficult to explain.”

Agency officials are discussing with Caveon how best to pick schools. The company will soon analyze the state’s 2006 test scores, which could provide confirming evidence of cheating in some schools. TEA did not have a full list of the suspicious schools until this week, after a News story showed it was missing more than 160 schools that Caveon had flagged.

“We need to prioritize that list,” agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.

But agency officials acknowledged the task of investigating would be difficult. Cheating is alleged to have occurred in the spring of 2005. By the time investigations begin, the trail will have been cold for 17 months.

“I don’t think these investigations will be quick,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “There will be interviews with many, many people.”

The task force will first meet in late August, with the investigations to begin shortly thereafter. It’s unclear how long the investigations will take to complete. Ms. Ratcliffe said that it would probably take months, meaning it could be Christmas before cases are closed.

The agency’s most recent large-scale investigation was in Wilmer-Hutchins, the troubled school district in southern Dallas County. After a series of News stories in November 2004 showing evidence of cheating in the district’s elementary schools, TEA launched an on-site investigation. It took four months.

Friday’s letter to superintendents also says TEA will create a formal system for sending state monitors to oversee testing in suspect schools. The state has sent in monitors on rare occasions before, Ms. Ratcliffe said, but only on an ad hoc basis.

The most noted of those occasions was in Wilmer-Hutchins, in spring 2005. TEA sent more than 70 monitors to prevent cheating from occurring again. The district’s test scores plummeted as a result. The district has since been shut down.