FW school cheated, state says; Troubled charter could face closure after TAKS findings

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The state’s investigation into cheating on the 2005 TAKS test has borne its first fruit.

Theresa B. Lee Academy, a Fort Worth charter school with a long history of problems, improperly tampered with the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, state officials announced Thursday. As a result, the Texas Education Agency could launch proceedings to close the school permanently.

“I think this could be the beginning of the end,” agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.

Lee was one of two schools highlighted last week in a Dallas Morning News investigation that found evidence of extensive cheating at a number of Texas charter schools. The two with the biggest problems, according to The News’ statistical analysis, were Lee and its sister school, Jesse Jackson Academy in Houston.

But while Lee is facing sanctions, the state investigation at Jesse Jackson Academy has concluded without finding any cheating. That’s in part because the investigation did not examine a single student answer sheet.

The schools’ superintendent, Jesse Jackson, for whom the Houston facility is named, said Thursday that he runs honest schools and is the target of an organized campaign of unknown origin.

“For some reason, there’s somebody out there who’s said, ‘We’ve got to discredit them,'” said Dr. Jackson, who is not the national civil rights leader and political figure.

But two former teachers at Lee said cheating was a fact of life on the campus.

“It’s just not right what they do there,” said Jakobus Wolf, who was a science teacher at Lee last year. “Kids know that if they go to Theresa B. Lee, somebody else will pass the TAKS for them.”

Analyzing the scores

The state investigation was prompted by an analysis of 2005 TAKS scores by Caveon, a Utah-based test-security firm. Caveon identified 700 schools whose TAKS performance was suspicious in some way, such as having too many students with identical or near-identical answer sheets. The testing performances of Jackson and Lee were among the most suspicious in the state, according to Caveon’s analysis.

TEA investigated the 700 schools. But in more than 90 percent of cases, the investigation consisted solely of sending school officials a questionnaire about their test-security policies. If schools did not provide information that indicated improprieties, they were cleared.

So far, 691 of the 700 schools have been cleared. Lee and another school, Winona High School, are the first two where investigators have confirmed inappropriate behavior. Seven schools remain under investigation, including five in the Dallas school district.

The News, with the assistance of prominent scholars in the cheating-detection field, performed its own statistical analysis on TAKS scores for 2005 and 2006 and found significant cheating at a number of cleared schools on the Caveon list. The most spectacular was Jesse Jackson Academy, where entire grades of students gave long rows of identical wrong answers.

Several researchers said they had never seen so much organized cheating in a contained environment.

“I was shocked by the scale,” said Robert Frary, a longtime cheating researcher and professor emeritus at Virginia Tech University.

“Mind-boggling – total corruption,” said David Harpp, a cheating researcher and professor at McGill University in Montreal.

The state’s report on Lee says school officials repeatedly refused to provide information to investigators. And when they did, the report states, there were a number of contradictions and other problems in the stories that school officials provided.

When investigators asked Lee principal William Powell for certain testing paperwork, he replied that those documents had been “lost in the flood.”

Over the next few months, the exact details of “the flood” varied with each telling of the tale. It was blamed, variously, on “a nearby creek,” “leaking water pipes,” “blowing rain,” a “downpour that leaked through the ceiling” and “seepage up through the floor from unknown sources.”

State investigators could not confirm the existence of any floodlike events, and they even confirmed with the National Weather Service that there was no significant rain at the time that the flooding is alleged to have occurred.

“The explanations provided by the charter school staff are contradictory, and not substantiated or corroborated,” the report concludes.

Answers changed?

Based on interviews with teachers and other staff, the state report lists a number of problems with the 2005 TAKS testing at Lee. One teacher reported that Shirley Dukes, the school’s vice principal, had “changed the answers on the student answer documents” with the help of another teacher.

The reporting teacher also said that Ms. Dukes had prematurely told two teachers the essay topics on the writing portion of the TAKS test. The teachers then passed them on to students. In three cases, the teacher claimed, Ms. Dukes had written the students’ essays for them and “directed the students to copy her written response ‘verbatim’ in their test booklet.”

Ms. Dukes did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment Thursday. But Mr. Powell said Wednesday that he did not think Ms. Dukes would get involved in such activity.

“I don’t think she would cheat, no,” he said.

Mr. Wolf said he first saw cheating at Lee when he was administering a retake of the graduation TAKS in October. Midway through the test, he said, Ms. Dukes came into his room and told him he needed to take the test himself.

“She said, ‘I need to make sure you know your science,’ ” he said.

He took the test quickly, he said. Ms. Dukes then told him she would take over proctoring the rest of the exam.

At the end of the school day, he saw several of his students and asked them how they thought they had performed on the test.

“They said, ‘We did as well as you did – Ms. Dukes just wrote your answers up on the chalkboard after you left,’ ” he said.

Mr. Wolf said Ms. Dukes later approached him to see whether he would be interested in being paid extra to doctor student answer sheets.

“She wanted to know if I knew social studies,” he said. He said he declined and called TEA to report his concerns anonymously.

Another former teacher, Dwaine Guyton, also said that Ms. Dukes was the main force behind the cheating at Lee. He said that for the last several years, students’ completed TAKS answer sheets remained on campus for up to a week after testing had concluded. During that time, he said, Ms. Dukes and another teacher would change student answers.

After Mr. Guyton spoke to investigators this spring, he said, the school decided not to renew his contract. He is looking for work.

He said he did what he thought was his duty – reporting what he knew anonymously to TEA and trying to inform Dr. Jackson, the superintendent. But he said Dr. Jackson disagreed with his claims.

“I tried to say: Why don’t you do it right?” Mr. Guyton said. “We need to help these kids, and if we don’t do everything right, this school isn’t gonna last.”

Students absent

One frustration for investigators: When they tried to interview Lee students, they were nowhere to be found.

Of the 94 students investigators most wanted to reach – those who had been at Lee during the 2005 testing and still attended the school – only four could be interviewed. The remainder were either absent on the day of interviews or, according to school officials, had recently withdrawn from school altogether.

Those levels of absenteeism don’t match up with the records Theresa B. Lee reported to the state. In 2004-05, the most recent year available, Lee reported a 94.4 percent attendance rate.

As a result, the state report recommends that TEA audit the school’s attendance records. Texas public schools are given state funds primarily based on how many students they have attending on an average day. More students equal more money.

“You see kids’ names on [your roster], and they’re kids you’ve never seen in your life,” Mr. Guyton said. “There might be 60 kids, and five or eight of them are there.”

For example, in Mr. Wolf’s fifth-period biology class, his class roster listed 56 students – a number that would be untenable if they were actually in attendance.

But over the last 15 days of school, for example, 36 of his “students” did not attend class even once, according to his attendance records. Fourteen others missed 10 or more of those days.

The daily attendance rate in fifth period over that span: 13 percent. Across all of Mr. Wolf’s classes, the average was just under 20 percent. If the rest of the school’s attendance numbers were similar to Mr. Wolf’s, Lee would be receiving almost five times the state money it deserves.

This will not be the first time that Lee is investigated for improperly reporting the number of students it has. In 2005, the Texas Department of Agriculture took the rare step of shutting down Lee’s school lunch program. A department report said it was in part because the school was reporting – and seeking state payment for – meals that it didn’t serve.

Dr. Jackson said Friday that his schools record attendance honestly.

“We report what our kids are doing,” he said. He then said The News was unfairly targeting his school and hung up on a reporter.

Not what he expected

Mr. Wolf described himself as an idealistic man who joined the faculty at Lee because he wanted to help the disadvantaged. He’d lived a privileged life as the son of a German diplomat in Mexico. After graduating with an art history degree from Texas Christian University, he decided he wanted to teach before applying to graduate programs.

“I thought I could make a difference,” he said.

But he said he had no idea what he was getting into at Lee. His students had no textbooks and no lab equipment. He ended up photocopying sections of his college biology textbook for his students – until he was told he was using too much paper.

When he saw a deal on science textbooks on Amazon.com, he asked Dr. Jackson if he could have $100 in school funds to buy 30. “He got angry and said, ‘Don’t you know charter schools have to do more with less?’ ” Mr. Wolf said.

State records show that Lee has received more than $5 million in state and federal funds since 1999.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jackson and his family have done well financially. At least eight members of the family have been on the payroll of one or both schools.

State automotive records indicate the Jacksons own a 2006 Cadillac XLR Roadster, a 2005 Cadillac DeVille, a 2003 Cadillac Escalade and a 2003 Porsche 911. The base prices on those vehicles total more than $240,000. In 2002, the Jacksons also bought a bayfront home in Galveston.

“He’s driving around in fancy cars and the kids don’t have textbooks,” Mr. Wolf said.

Investigators did not consider the evidence against any specific employees at Lee strong enough to recommend sanctions. But the final decision on what will happen to the school as a whole rests with Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.

She had hoped to make decisions by now, Ms. Marchman said, but she was sidelined by surgery Monday to remove a cancerous growth on her right leg.

Even if Dr. Neeley decides to close the school, Dr. Jackson would be able to appeal – a process that can take several years. During that time, the school would stay open.