State ready to crack down on teachers who cheat; Rules prioritize offenses, help alert other districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The state’s chief regulator of teachers is increasing the priority it places on policing cheating on the TAKS test.

A new set of rules, approved by the State Board for Educator Certification this month, will devote more resources to investigating teachers suspected of doctoring student answers. The rules would also make it easier for school districts to know whether someone applying for a job is suspected of cheating in another district.

“There’s no point in giving a TAKS test if we can’t know the results of that test are the true reflection of a child’s knowledge,” said Bonnie Cain, the superintendent of Pearland schools and the state board’s acting president. “There’s no good in having a test if it doesn’t have integrity.”

The changes come after a Dallas Morning News story in October that found problems with the way schools were informed of the findings of a state investigation into cheating in the now-defunct Wilmer-Hutchins district.

That investigation identified 22 educators who it said “were involved in testing irregularities,” like giving students answer keys or doctoring test documents.

At least 10 of those educators quickly found jobs in other districts, many of which had no knowledge of the findings until informed by The News.

The regulations – which must still pass a few hurdles before taking effect – would divide complaints about teachers into two groups: Priority 1 and Priority 2.

Some examples of Priority 1 offenses: a felony conviction, sex crimes, bringing drugs or weapons onto school property, and a romantic relationship with a student. Priority 2 offenses include things like parent complaints and most misdemeanor crimes.

“There’s no way you can divide up the cases in a way that everyone will be happy with,” Dr. Cain said. “But SBEC needs to be able to prioritize between the really-bad-guy stuff, the kinda-bad-guy stuff, and the ‘not so bad, but we still don’t like it’ stuff.”

The rules formalize a system that had been in place at the agency for the past year and a half. But under that informal system, cheating allegations had been considered Priority 2. The new rules would bump them up to Priority 1.

The new rule targets “serious testing violations,” which it defines as those that involve dishonesty or the intent to fudge the performance of a student or school in the state accountability system. That would cover cheating, but could also include other types of fraud, such as districts changing the racial classification of a student to game the system.

The priority change is important, because the rules also give Texas Education Agency staff more leeway to devote greater resources to high-priority cases – and to close low-priority ones.

Dating back to the days when the board was a separate agency, officials have acknowledged a backlog caused by thousands of relatively minor complaints. The sheer volume clogs the system.

“There are some complaints that have been sitting around for years, literally,” said Jennifer Canaday, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Public Educators.

SBEC’s staff and responsibilities were merged into TEA in 2005, although the board continues to operate separately from the State Board of Education.

The rules also provide guidance on the agency’s controversial system for flagging teachers’ certificates.

If an educator is currently under investigation by SBEC, a note to that effect is sometimes attached to his or her teaching certificate. Since school districts check a teacher’s certificate before making hiring decisions, a “flag” could potentially prevent an educator from getting a job.

But teacher groups have complained for years that the “flags” are applied inconsistently and are hard to remove.

Because cheating was considered a less important offense by SBEC, many teachers suspected of cheating never had their certificates flagged. For instance, in the Wilmer-Hutchins case, none of the 22 educators identified by state investigation received flags, making it easier for them to find new jobs with other districts.

Under the new rules, Priority 2 cases may no longer cause an accused educator to be flagged. Those charged with a Priority 1 offense may be, but only for up to 240 days in most cases.

(The length of time was a point of contention in negotiations with teacher groups. The groups had pushed for 180 days; state officials had initially suggested 365.)

Teacher groups said they are generally happy with the changes, although there are a few details they still hope to change. “We think flagging is fair, as long as minor incidents aren’t going to trigger a flag and there is a reasonable time limit,” Ms. Canaday said.

The rules are now subjected to a mandatory public comment period, after which the certification board will reconsider them. The State Board of Education will have final say over their adoption.