W-H official cited in inquiry; Ex-principal’s lawyer denies wrongdoing in TAKS cheating scandal

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The investigation into TAKS cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins schools is moving up the district’s chain of command.

Jatis McCollister, the former principal of Alta Mesa Elementary, knew that cheating was going on and that the school’s high test scores were unearned, according to a complaint filed by officials in a state administrative court on Friday.

She is the first administrator in the defunct school district to be targeted, but she may not be the last. State officials said that a number of other district and campus officials could face sanction hearings before a state judge in the coming months, both for TAKS cheating and falsifying attendance data to generate more money from the state.

“If you take on the role of being the leader of a campus, that comes with responsibilities,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman.

“It’s your duty to ensure there isn’t this sort of wrongdoing on your campus.”

Ms. McCollister’s attorney, Daniel Ortiz, said she was innocent of all claims in the complaint.

“Ms. McCollister is a longtime Texas educator who enjoys an outstanding record,” he said. “She’s done nothing wrong.”

An earlier state investigation found that 22 Wilmer-Hutchins teachers and other staff members had changed student answers, distributed answer keys and otherwise helped give test scores a false boost on the 2004 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

The district, beset by financial problems, shut all of its schools in 2005. State officials permanently dissolved the district last year.

Mr. Ortiz said he did not know where Ms. McCollister is working or whether she is employed by any local school. The complaint filed Friday does not carry any criminal weight, but it could lead to the revocation of her license to teach.

The state’s investigation was initially prompted by a series of Dallas Morning News stories in 2004, which found suspicious swings in Wilmer-Hutchins test scores and evidence from students and teachers of organized cheating. Alta Mesa was one of the stories’ focal points.

For example, two Alta Mesa students told The News that teachers had pointed out and corrected answers on their TAKS answer sheets.

Alta Mesa’s performance on the state test took radical swings: On fifth-grade tests, the school moved from the bottom 1 percent of the state in 2000 to the top 5 percent of the state in 2004. Alta Mesa’s top-scoring students saw their performance plummet when they moved on to the district’s junior high, where cheating was not suspected.

In those stories, Ms. McCollister strenuously denied that any cheating had occurred. “The kids did well, and because they did well, they’re being made victims of their own success,” she said at the time. “The media has decided that we’re cheating.”

But a later state investigation found otherwise, identifying the 22 teachers and other staffers in the district, eight at Alta Mesa.

According to the complaint filed Friday, Ms. McCollister attempted to sabotage the state’s investigation by telling students how to answer investigators’ questions and by discouraging a parent from allowing her child to be interviewed by investigators.

Mr. Ortiz said that was untrue. He said that the state’s complaint sends a “dangerous message” to school administrators statewide that they could face disciplinary action for deeds done by their staff without the officials’ knowledge.

Friday’s filing puts the case against Ms. McCollister in front of an administrative law judge at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. That judge will determine the issues of guilt or innocence. The State Board for Educator Certification would then determine any punishment, which could range from a reprimand to the revocation of her teaching certificate.

Meanwhile, disciplinary action against the 22 previously identified Wilmer-Hutchins staffers continues its slow march. It has now been nearly three years since the alleged cheating took place, but no formal complaints have been filed against any of them. All of their cases are still pending, officials said.

“It’s not uncommon for these types of cases to take a fair amount of time to process,” Ms. Marchman said.

The defunct district is scheduled to make another appearance in court soon. Former Wilmer-Hutchins Superintendent Charles Matthews faces felony charges related to evidence tampering and falsifying attendance data.

His trial was originally scheduled for later this month, but the regime change at the Dallas County district attorney’s office has forced a postponement of his trial date to March.