December 19, 2004
Newspaper Finds Evidence of Cheating by Texas Schools
The Associated Press
DALLAS Dozens of Texas schools appear to have cheated on the state's redesigned academic achievement test, casting doubt on whether the state's accountability system can reliably measure how schools are performing, a newspaper investigation found.
The Dallas Morning News' data analysis uncovered strong evidence that organized, educator-led cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills took place at schools in Houston and Dallas. The newspaper also found suspicious scores in hundreds more schools.
State officials typically focus on passing rates, or the number of students who met state standards. The newspaper examined scale scores, a more specific measure based on how many questions were answered correctly. The scores reveal which schools are acing the test and which are squeaking by.
The newspaper analyzed scores from 7,700 Texas schools, searching for ones with unusual gaps in performance between grades or subjects. Research has shown that schools that are weak in one subject or grade are typically weak in others.
More than 200 schools had large, unexplained score gaps between grades or between the TAKS and other standardized tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test.
For example, the fourth-graders at Sanderson Elementary School in the Houston Independent School District scored extremely poorly on the math TAKS test this year. Their average scale score was so low that it placed Sanderson in the bottom 2 percent of the state.
But the school's fifth-graders ended up with the highest scale scores on the math TAKS of any school in Texas, beating every magnet school, every high performing school and every wealthy suburban school in the state. More than 90 percent of the students got perfect or near-perfect scores.
No school even came close to that performance. In scale-score points, the distance between Sanderson and the second-best school was as large as the gap between No. 2 and No. 116.
Arizona State University Professor Tom Haladyna likened that improbable year-to-year improvement to a weekend softball player hitting 80 home runs in the major leagues.
"If you see big swings in those numbers, I think we should raise our eyebrows and say this is very, very unusual," he said.
In a written statement, Houston Superintendent Abe Saavedra said he has asked the Texas Education Agnecy to investigate the scores at Sanderson, which the U.S. Education Department named a Blue Ribbon School in 2003 because of rapid improvements in test results.
"At HISD, our credibility and integrity must remain absolutely beyond question," he said.
Similar results were found at Harrell Budd Elementary in the Dallas Independent School District.
In the third grade, Budd's students finished in the bottom 4 percent in reading. But Budd's fourth-graders had the second-highest reading scores in the state, beating schools in Plano, Highland Park and every other wealthy district. The only school that finished ahead of them was a Houston magnet school for gifted children.
District spokesman Donald Claxton said officials there plan to conduct a thorough investigation.
"If there's cheating going on, we want to stop it," he said.
The cheating allegations raise questions about the Texas accountability system and the federal No Child Left Behind law. Both attempt to measure the quality of public schools and punish those that don't meet standards.
Jim Impara, a former state assessment director in Florida and Oregon, said he believes those high-stakes systems are changing the culture of education.
"When you have a system where test scores have real impact on teachers' lives, you're more likely to see teachers willing to cheat," he said.
On the Net: The Dallas Morning News, www.dallasnews.com