Faking the Grade: Schools had issues from Day 1; Many troubled charters were hastily approved over TEA objections

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A group of charter schools approved controversially in 1998 are, among all their other problems, a significant source of the state’s cheating.

The 100-plus schools were approved at a rambunctious meeting of a State Board of Education committee. That’s when board members rejected staff recommendations and decided to give a charter school – and access to state money – to every entity that had applied for one. They were dubbed “Generation Three” schools because they were the third group of charter contracts granted by the state.

While some Generation Three charters have succeeded, many have run into financial and academic problems. Test scores at the charters approved that day consistently lag behind charters approved at other points over the past decade.

Of the 50 worst cases of cheating found in the News analysis, 37 were in charter schools. And of those, 29 were Generation Three.

Almost all are in Houston, including Gulf Shores High School, Children First Academy and Alphonso Crutch’s Life Support Center.

Each of those schools was flagged by the test-security firm Caveon, which state officials hired to investigate 2005 test scores. With the exception of Crutch, each of those schools has since been cleared by TEA and declared cheating-free. (Jesse Jackson Academy and Theresa B. Lee Academy, charter schools considered extremely suspicious by both Caveon and The News, are also Generation Three schools. Lee is still formally under state investigation; a preliminary state report has cleared Jackson.)

Gulf Shores High School, in particular, appears to have some of the state’s most significant cheating, according to the News’ analysis. In some cases, the suspect answer sheets come in clusters of a half-dozen or more students, suggesting major problems with how the school polices itself on test day. In many cases, the same pairs of students are flagged multiple times, suggesting that they cheated together on two or three tests.

Were it not for the strange events at that 1998 meeting, it is unlikely Gulf Shores would exist. Out of the 82 applications TEA received in its category of charter schools that year, agency staff rated it 81st. If the State Board of Education had been even marginally selective, Gulf Shores would have been a likely target for rejection.

Instead, TEA has spent much of the last decade pursuing sanctions or other actions against Gulf Shores and its parent organization, Gulf Shores Academy. The charter system has a history of financial and academic problems, including a roughly $8 million debt to the state for over-reporting student attendance. State officials have, for several years, been trying to shut down the school.

Gulf Shores representatives did not respond or could not be reached for comment.

Alphonso Crutch’s has also long been among the state’s most troubled charter schools, with state officials having tried – and failed – to shut it down several years ago. When Crutch officials applied to open a charter school for at-risk students, TEA staffers rated its application the worst applicant of all in its category – 84th out of 84. In the News’ analysis, Crutch had six different TAKS tests where more than 20 percent of answer sheets were flagged for cheating.

Last week, an administrator at Alphonso Crutch’s who declined to give her name denied there was any cheating at the school. “That’s not true,” she said.

The News’ study detected no cheating on most of the TAKS subject tests given at Children First Academy. But there was one big exception: the sixth-grade math test in 2005, where 17 of the 32 students tested were flagged for cheating. That rate – 53 percent of all answer sheets – was the highest of any test at any Texas school in 2005.

Sherwin Allen, director of Children First, told The News he believes his school’s results derive from hard work.

The News’ study also flagged several charter schools that were not part of Generation Three. One was the Paul Quinn campus of Dallas Can! Academy, which was also flagged as suspicious by Caveon and cleared by TEA. The News’ analysis found significant evidence of cheating on six TAKS tests, three in 2005 and three in 2006. On last year’s social studies exit exam, for instance, 17 of 59 students were flagged. Groups of seven and six students each had identical or near-identical answer sheets. All of those juniors passed.

“We do not feel like there was cheating in any way, shape or form from our students,” said Cheryl Rios, a spokeswoman for Texans Can!, the charter’s parent organization.