Faking the Grade: At charters, cheating’s off the charts; Loosely regulated schools among state’s worst offenders on TAKS

By Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writers

Page 1A

Second of three parts

Last year, 53 sophomores took the math TAKS test at Houston’s Jesse Jackson Academy. Two stood out from the crowd.

They were the only two whose answer sheets don’t show evidence of cheating.

Jackson – a Houston charter school with a long record of trouble with authorities – is home to the most extreme cheating in Texas, according to an in-depth analysis of test scores by The Dallas Morning News.

The cheating spans years, grades and subjects, and it’s on a scale that shocks even veteran hunters of educational fraud. And its existence is the latest black eye for the state’s efforts to regulate its patchwork of charter schools.

“Mind-boggling,” said David Harpp, a Canadian cheating expert who examined the school’s scores. “Total corruption.”

At Jesse Jackson, TAKS passing rates have had big, unlikely swings – like dropping from 100 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2006.

Even with rampant cheating, many of its scores are still very poor. One possible explanation, experts say: School staff members are doctoring students’ answer sheets – but can’t always answer test questions themselves.

And most perplexing of all: A state investigation into the allegations is about to clear the school of all charges – without examining a single student answer sheet. Instead, a state employee interviewed school staff and asked whether they had cheated.

“This is ludicrous,” Dr. Harpp said. “That’s not an investigation. That’s just looking around.”

Not far behind Jesse Jackson in the ranks of the biggest cheaters is another charter school operated by the same family, Theresa B. Lee Academy in Fort Worth. Both schools have had a long series of run-ins with state officials and almost a decade of bad academic performance.

Yet both schools remain open. They continue to receive a stream of taxpayer dollars – more than $11 million so far.

And three years ago, despite the schools’ problems, the Texas Education Agency chose to extend their right to operate for another decade. The agency has been repeatedly criticized for allowing sub-par charter schools – even those that have trouble keeping track of their public money – to stay open.

“It’s a very difficult process to close a charter school,” agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. “That’s why we try to get them to turn in their charter voluntarily. Otherwise, it takes thousands of hours of work and years to do it.”

The News’ analysis of TAKS data from 2005 and 2006, which was done with help from George Wesolowsky, a professor at McMaster University in Canada, found that by far the most extreme cases of cheating were in the state’s lightly regulated and privately run charter schools.

Of the 50 most egregious cases of cheating The News’ study found, 37 took place in charter schools. In each of those instances, a quarter or more of all the answer sheets on a particular test had many more answers in common than experts say would happen by chance.

That’s despite the fact that charter schools make up only 2 percent of the state’s campuses.

“Unfortunately, it’s not surprising,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that often spars with policies supported by conservatives, including charter schools. “The story of charters in Texas has been all about broken promises.”

Contacted by The News last week, Superintendent Jesse Jackson at first said he was confident there was no cheating at the school he named for himself. “That school is fine – I’d put it up against any charter in the state,” he said.

But when the newspaper informed him of the extreme patterns found on his school’s answer sheets, his tone shifted: “I’m going to have to look into it.”

Unprepared schools?

There are two important things to know about Jackson and Lee.

First: No, it’s not that Jesse Jackson. The Jesse Jackson in question is a Houston resident with experience in curriculum and nonprofit work and a doctorate from Vanderbilt University. He is not the civil rights leader and political activist.

Second: If the staff of the Texas Education Agency had gotten its way, there never would have been a Jesse Jackson Academy or a Theresa B. Lee Academy – or, for that matter, many of the other charter schools with cheating problems.

In 1998, state officials decided to increase the number of charter schools and requested applications from entities interested in sponsoring a school. Applications poured in; a charter school could generate millions of taxpayer dollars a year for even a small organization.

In all, 84 proposals were submitted for a specific type of charter school that would target students at risk of dropping out or failing. Two came from the husband-and-wife team of Jesse and Artie Jackson. They proposed a Houston school named for Dr. Jackson and a Fort Worth school named for Ms. Jackson’s mother. (On the first page of the Jesse Jackson proposal, Dr. Jackson is listed as the school’s “principle.”)

TEA staffers were asked to evaluate each of the applications, and they were not impressed with what the Jacksons had to offer. In the ranking system they created, the Jesse Jackson proposal ranked 67th of the 84 applications. Theresa B. Lee ranked 79th.

“We were really trying to find out who was really ready to open a school and who wasn’t,” said Brooks Flemister, who was at that time the agency’s senior director for charter schools.

The schools had the support of a number of legislators in their hometowns. Houston Reps. Harold Dutton Jr., Garnet Coleman and Ron Wilson wrote letters of support. So did Sens. Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth and John Whitmire of Houston.

But reviewers of the two schools’ applications had numerous issues with the proposals, ranging from the schools’ lack of a “clear written vision statement” to problems with the way they planned to teach their curriculum.

In the end, though, those concerns didn’t matter. On Sept. 10, 1998, at a now infamous committee meeting of the State Board of Education, dozens of angry charter-school applicants demanded that their proposals be approved. Several argued that the state was being racially discriminatory when it rated some proposals from minority-led organizations lower than some from white-led ones.

Under pressure from the audience, the board committee voted to reject TEA staff recommendations and to give every applicant a charter. That decision has haunted the Texas charter movement since, as a number of the schools approved that day have gone on to have serious financial and management problems.

“That was the worst day in my professional life,” Mr. Flemister said. “You either have a selection process that is precise, or you just open up the gates and let everybody come in. By opening up the gates, we got some that just weren’t ready to run a school.”

At-risk students

The Jacksons had been operating their two campuses as private schools before getting state charters. They had contracts with the Fort Worth, Houston and Everman school districts to take on some of those districts’ toughest cases. Many of their students were in trouble with their previous schools or the law.

“The kids we were dealing with were the kids that Fort Worth was kicking out of school,” Ms. Jackson said. “We were turning these kids around and sending them back to their regular schools. We received commendations. We reduced the crime rate in the southeast quadrant of Fort Worth, because we were dealing with these kids as if they were our children.”

But tax records show that money was tight before the public dollars came in. In 1997, the year before their charters were approved, the Jacksons’ nonprofit corporation had debts totaling $26,000 and an empty bank account.

The problems at Jesse Jackson Academy started almost the day it became a charter school. State officials have, over the years, reprimanded the schools for a long line of problems, including reporting false dropout data, ignoring accounting requirements and keeping records poorly.

In 1999, an on-site review by state officials flagged the school for needing improvement in governance and “compliance with applicable laws and regulations.” Despite having bragged in its application about its “in-house staff of certified teachers” that was “among the best,” two of Jackson’s five faculty members had no college degree at the time of the review. None of the five teachers were certified by the state, and all had fewer than five years’ experience teaching.

Jackson’s TAKS scores were weak, as might be expected from a school designed to target dropouts and the disadvantaged. The school got the state’s lowest rating – “low performing” or “unacceptable,” depending on the year – five times. In 2003, no Jackson student passed the math, science or English language arts sections of the TAKS. The school has only earned an “acceptable” rating once.

Lee has had its share of problems as well. It has received the state’s lowest rating twice, including in 2006. State officials have repeatedly complained about nepotism. Along with the husband-and-wife team in charge, Lee was previously run by the Jacksons’ daughter and son-in-law, Maria Jackson Branch and Loring Branch. Two brothers-in-law, a nephew, and a nephew’s wife have also been on the payroll.

The schools have also run into repeated financial problems. The most recent annual audit of the Jacksons’ nonprofit – which oversees both schools – expressed uncertainty about the schools’ “ability to continue as a going concern.” The previous year’s audit reported that “inadequacies in the Corporation’s accounting records” had left auditors unable to evaluate some of the school’s expenses. The nonprofit group has also paid at least $119,000 in IRS penalties.

It is difficult to know how much the Jacksons have made from their schools in the years since. State records list Dr. Jackson as drawing a $72,000 salary. Tax records over the past decade show his wife Artie as receiving annual salaries up to $122,000. In at least one tax year, she also rented a building to the family’s nonprofit for $55,000 a year.

Records also show that, at least through the late 1990s, the largest vendor for the nonprofit was a separate for-profit firm named Jesse Jackson & Associates.

But despite the school’s problems, Dr. Jackson paints a rosy picture. “We got the school in Houston turned around,” he said. “It’s doing very well.” He said Lee had struggled a bit, but that he expected it would improve also. As for finances, he said “there’s always going to be enough money to pay the bills.”

Similar answer sheets

It is one of the strange quirks of the cheating at Jesse Jackson and Theresa B. Lee that copying answers often doesn’t appear to have helped many students pass. Students whose answer sheets were filled with responses identical to their classmates’ still didn’t manage to get enough questions correct to do well.

Take last year’s 11th-grade science test, for example. The News’ analysis flagged 46 of Jackson’s 51 juniors for cheating. Their answer sheets are all identical or remarkably similar to the others, as if all 46 students got their answers from the same source – albeit a bad one. But only two of those students actually passed the exam because the shared answers were mostly wrong.

Contrast that with the school’s performance on the 10th-grade social studies test. Not only did every student pass – nearly every student got a near-perfect score. Jackson’s average score was the highest of any school in the state – exceeding the scores of even the state’s most elite magnet schools.

The News’ analysis can’t determine how, exactly, cheating took place. But experts say the data do suggest a number of possibilities.

It is possible that students are, en masse, copying answers from one of their less-bright peers. That would likely require a near collapse of test-security procedures. A school official – usually a teacher – is supposed to supervise every moment of test administration. It is difficult to imagine how 46 students could copy answers off a single source without an honest teacher noticing.

Another possibility: Teachers or other school officials are actively helping, perhaps by preparing answer keys ahead of time or by doctoring answer sheets after the fact. Both of those phenomena have been reported on the TAKS before, such as in the now-defunct Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

But one might also expect a cheating teacher to get more TAKS answers right than Jackson’s students did.

What can be said, according to multiple experts, is that the scores at Jackson and Lee are largely determined by cheating, not the actual knowledge of students. The four most extreme cases of cheating found in The News’ statewide analysis were all at Jesse Jackson Academy.

“I was shocked by the scale” of the answer copying at Jackson, said Robert Frary, a longtime cheating researcher and professor emeritus at Virginia Tech. In more than 30 years of study, he said, he had never seen test fraud so blatant and so total.

The cheating at Lee was not quite as extreme as Jackson’s, according to The News’ analysis, but it was still among the worst in the state. On the 11th-grade science test in 2006, for example, 19 of Lee’s 37 answer sheets were flagged. That was the second highest rate detected on that test in Texas – behind only Jackson.

The News attempted to contact several dozen Jesse Jackson and Theresa B. Lee alumni and current students. A handful said they had no knowledge of cheating. The remainder did not return messages.

Jacksons’ reaction

At first, the Jacksons told The News they were confident the scores at their schools were legitimate and attacked those who questioned them.

“Next month, my mother will make her 93rd birthday,” Ms. Jackson said of the woman for whom Theresa B. Lee Academy is named. “And now they’re going to slander her name? This cannot happen.” She called accusations against the schools “speculation taking off in the air like a germ.”

She pointed out that Lee had, only a year ago, qualified for a $60,000 Governor’s Educator Excellence Award grant because of its test scores. It was one of only five charter schools statewide to be so honored.

“Why is it that after all these years where we have helped people, when we’ve made such an impact and we finally get recognized by the governor – then all of a sudden we’re being attacked? Something is wrong with that.”

After hearing more details from The News about the answer patterns on tests at Jackson and Lee, Ms. Jackson softened. “That does sound suspect.”

Both Jackson and Lee were flagged as suspicious in the analysis of 2005 TAKS scores by Caveon, the test-security firm the TEA hired to look for cheating. As a result, both schools are under investigation by state officials.

Dr. Jackson said a state investigator had told him there might have been some problems at Lee. But Jesse Jackson Academy is poised to get off scot-free.

State investigators have completed their work and written a preliminary report clearing Jackson of all charges, according to a copy obtained by The News.

The state investigation of Jesse Jackson – like all of TEA’s investigations into cheating – did not examine any data drawn from student answer sheets, despite the fact that the data prompted the investigations in the first place.

Had agency officials examined answer sheets for the 11th-grade science test that Caveon flagged, they would have seen the 21 students who had identical answer sheets. Each answered 49 of 55 questions correctly, and each missed the same six questions by giving the same wrong answers.

They would have noticed the kind of unusual answer patterns that decades of research have shown to be the tell-tale signs of cheating – like how 84 of 87 students wrongly answered “J” to Question 30, or how 53 students all answered the first 17 questions perfectly.

But the agency investigator instead focused his efforts on asking teachers how they had managed to earn, on that year’s graduation test, a 99 percent passing rate in math and social studies and a 100 percent in science. Teachers reported they were the result of “extensive and intensive instructional interventions.” As a result, the report states that the investigation “produced no evidence of purposive impropriety.”

“When there’s so much data and information they could look at, to not look at any of it is like having a bag on your head,” said Dr. Harpp, a professor at McGill University who has studied cheating for nearly two decades. “It’s an ostrich with his head in the sand.”

The report does reveal that someone tried to contact TEA during TAKS testing in 2005, “an individual who identified himself as Mr. Johnson alleging cheating.” But the report states attempts to reach Mr. Johnson “were unsuccessful.”

Ms. Jackson took the report as confirmation of her school’s innocence. “Jesse Jackson’s been cleared of all of that,” she said.

A TEA spokesperson said the agency would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Last week, Lee principal William Powell said he hoped the state investigation at his school would find no wrongdoing. He said it was “a good possibility” that one or more of his teachers could have simply taught incorrect material that students then translated into wrong answers.

But when The News shared with Mr. Powell some of the answer strings from Lee’s tests – which show large clusters of students giving up to 30 identical wrong answers – his reaction changed.

“Good Lord – I sure did not suspect this,” said the five-year principal. “Facts and figures don’t lie.”

Because TEA had not provided answer-sheet data, he said, he had no idea what sort of student answers had triggered Caveon’s suspicions until The News shared its data. State investigators also worked without benefit of Caveon data, since TEA chose not to request it from the company.

Having seen the evidence on his school’s answer sheets, Mr. Powell said he would make a stronger effort to prevent it from recurring. “I’m sure you won’t see that again,” he said.

The next day, Dr. Jackson told The News that Mr. Powell had been fired for not ensuring “the test environment is secure.”

Limited oversight

Through all of the difficulties at Jackson and Lee, state intervention has remained limited. That’s been a common complaint about how TEA handles charter schools in trouble: Their behavior is tolerated, for years at a time.

“Before there’s any talk about expanding charters, or vouchers, or turning schools over to for-profit companies, we clearly need to clean up the mess that already exists,” said Ms. Miller, the charter critic.

In 2004 – despite the schools’ problems – TEA agreed to give Jackson and Lee 10-year renewals of their charters. One year later, the agency decided to let both campuses expand, from 250 students to 300.

Ms. Ratcliffe, the agency spokesperson, said that trying to close a troubled charter school takes two years, on average – and has no guarantee of success.

“It is very resource intensive,” she said. “In some cases, where a school has problems, we try to work them out. And if at some point, if the issues are resolved at the moment, we’ve ultimately renewed them.”

Mr. Flemister, the former TEA official, said the borderline charter schools approved at that 1998 meeting swamped the agency’s capacity to provide proper oversight.

“All of a sudden, every single office in the agency had 30 percent more work to do, with a lot of brand new schools that, to be honest, didn’t even speak the language,” he said.

And since Mr. Flemister left the agency, several rounds of budget cuts have left TEA with a substantially smaller staff.

A bill proposed in the recent legislative session, Senate Bill 4, would have made it easier to close certain under-performing charter schools. As originally written, it could have allowed the closure of Theresa B. Lee, but let Jesse Jackson Academy survive.

But, as has happened before with proposals to tighten regulations on charter schools, the Legislature concluded its session without passing it.

“Dealing with charter schools is like the proverbial herding cats,” Mr. Flemister said. “They can be ornery. Working with ISDs [traditional schools] is like training a dog – eventually, they’re going to get it.

“TEA was used to dogs, not cats.”