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Texas Launches Cheating Probe

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Texas education officials have announced a sweeping review of test security and a new monitoring plan for the state accountability system after a newspaper investigation alleged that assessment results for hundreds of schools throughout the state—including one celebrated elementary school in Houston—showed evidence of cheating and other irregularities.

The Texas Education Agency outlined its plan Jan. 10 for investigating suspected cheating and stemming future problems. The move comes on the heels of similar announcements by the superintendents in Houston and Dallas, the state’s two largest districts.

“We take cheating very seriously in our state, and we will be taking whatever actions are necessary to maintain the integrity of our testing program,” Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley said at a press conference. “This whole situation is embarrassing, … but we’re not putting our heads in the sand over this.”

The state agency will hired an outside testing expert to review its testing policies and procedures and will more closely monitor test results for the nearly 3 million children in grades 3-11 who participate in the assessment program each year, Ms. Neeley said. Educators found to have cheated, or those who failed to report cheating, could face disciplinary measures, ranging from a formal reprimand to suspension of their professional certificates to jail time.

‘Highly Questionable’

The actions were prompted by an analysis of scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, undertaken by The Dallas Morning News and published last month. The newspaper found that test results at as many as 400 of Texas’ 7,700 public schools were suspect, either showing unlikely leaps in scores from year to year or the failure of students to maintain high levels of achievement as they advanced in school.

Wesley Elementary School, a Houston school that had gained national acclaim under then-Superintendent Rod Paige for getting nearly all students from the impoverished neighborhood it serves to grade level in reading, was among those accused, along with two other affiliated schools that form a charter school district. Mr. Paige is wrapping up four years as the U.S. secretary of education.

According to the Dallas newspaper’s analysis of 2003 reading scores, Wesley’s 5th graders were among the top performers in the state, scoring in the top 10 percent. The following year, as 6th graders at Houston’s M.C. Williams Middle School, they fell to the bottom 10 percent in that subject and on the mathematics test, a trend that was not repeated elsewhere in the state.

“A Dallas Morning News investigation has found strong evidence that at least some of the success at Wesley and two affiliated schools comes from cheating,” the newspaper said in an article dated Dec. 31, 2004.

A former Wesley Elementary teacher had reported to the Houston school board 19 months earlier that teachers at the school were encouraged to cheat, according to state and district documents. The district’s investigation of those charges is ongoing.

Abelardo Saavedra, who recently took over as the superintendent of the 212,000-student Houston district, said the district agrees that the performance of Wesley and two other schools that form the school system’s Acres Home charter school district was “highly questionable.”

Mr. Saavedra announced Jan. 6 that the district would establish an inspector general’s office to institute new controls over test procedures and to investigate any suspected wrongdoing. The district’s internal auditor will head the office.

Superintendents in Dallas and Fort Worth, where the newspaper found a number of cases of questionable test-score trends, have also unveiled plans for stricter monitoring of the state testing program.

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