Progress cited in TAKS cheat probe; But initial investigation of five especially suspect schools far from done

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 4A

State investigators are having some success finding evidence of TAKS cheating in their first wave of on-site investigations. But it may be another two months before those investigations – of less than 1 percent of schools flagged as suspicious – are completed.

The Texas Education Agency is reacting to findings by Caveon, a Utah test-security firm it hired last year to look for signs of cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Caveon flagged 699 Texas schools for a variety of reasons, such as unexplained leaps in scores, high numbers of erased answers, or groups of students with identical or nearly identical answer sheets.

This summer, TEA appointed a task force to examine the findings. Agency staffers began on-site investigations at five schools whose scores seemed particularly suspicious. The names of those schools haven’t been made public.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said the investigative interviews were helpful in determining which of Caveon’s methods for detecting cheating can be supported through other evidence.

The task force, meeting Thursday in Austin, recommended a few changes to the methods investigators use. That includes interviewing a wider range of staff members on each campus under scrutiny.

Educators on campuses under active investigation will be allowed to report TAKS cheating anonymously. That’s an avenue not afforded teachers on other campuses.

“The thought is that on some campuses where there’s truly wrongdoing, people might be fearful of providing information if their administrator could identify them,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

The task force didn’t recommend changes to the state’s test-security procedures, as some expected. This fall’s first TAKS tests will be given Oct. 17.

Investigators made preliminary findings regarding the five targeted schools, Ms. Ratcliffe said. But those haven’t been communicated to the schools, which will have a chance to dispute any findings. Final reports will come later this fall, perhaps by the task force’s next scheduled meeting, in December, she said.

Ms. Ratcliffe said it’s unclear how many more schools will have on-site investigations. But the next wave should begin this month, she said.

State officials have asked principals at all 699 flagged schools to answer questions about their test security. Those answers will determine, in part, which schools will receive further scrutiny.

State investigators are working without detailed statistical information that would tell them which students had suspicious answer sheets. State officials have said such information isn’t necessary for a thorough investigation.

The task force has a new member, Pearland psychologist Diane Boudreaux-Kraft. She replaces Carol Francois, a former Dallas schools official. Ms. Ratcliffe said Dr. Francois had work obligations that conflicted with serving on the task force.