Faking the Grade: At education agency, years of inquiry, few concrete results; Of 700 schools flagged with suspicious scores, TEA has cited none

Page 22A

Accusations of cheating in Texas schools began in earnest in 2004, when a series of stories in The News uncovered cheating in Wilmer-Hutchins schools in southern Dallas County. The Texas Education Agency initially declined to investigate. But eventually a TEA team found that two-thirds of the test proctors in the district’s elementary schools had helped students improperly. The district was shut down as a result.

Additional News stories found rapid, unusual swings in the 2003 and 2004 scores of several hundred other Texas schools – swings that could be a sign of cheating. Those stories prompted internal investigations in several districts that led to a handful of teachers and principals being disciplined, but other schools being cleared.

To provide an outside point of view, TEA hired Caveon, a Utah-based test-security firm, to analyze 2005 test scores. The company’s report – which sat in draft form at the agency for several months – found 700 schools with scores it considered suspicious for a variety of reasons.

At first, the agency said it would not investigate Caveon’s findings because they considered the analysis merely a test run. Eventually, officials announced they would investigate all 700 schools. But the agency maintained that the analysis overestimated the size of the problem and confused gains in test scores with cheating.

“I’m not trying to say it should be a badge of valor to be on that list [of 700 schools], but every superintendent should be able to explain why those student gains were so good,” state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said last year. “As much effort as we concentrate on closing the achievement gap, I would be disappointed if we didn’t have significant gains.”

That’s despite the fact that only a minority of the schools on the Caveon list were flagged for unusually large gains. More were flagged for unusually large numbers of similar answer sheets, the evidence of cheating found by The News’ study.

For more than 90 percent of the schools on the Caveon list, the state’s investigations have consisted primarily of a questionnaire school officials were asked to complete on their test-security policies. Schools that did so successfully were cleared. Schools in 16 districts received on-site visits.

Today, only 12 of the 700 schools remain under formal investigation. No schools, so far, have been cited for even a single incidence of cheating.