Texas Presses Districts in Alleged Test-Tampering Cases

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Fallout from test-tampering charges continues to mount in Texas, where investigators are looking into allegations that school employees altered student information, including scores on the state's hallmark assessment, to boost school ratings.

In the latest turn, the Houston public schools fired a teacher and reprimanded two principals this month after the state education agency raised concerns about possible test-tampering in the district--the state's largest--and 10 other districts.

Texas officials have given the districts until April 1 to report back to the state about high numbers of erased and corrected answers on state tests.

Ken Oden

Meanwhile, Travis County Attorney Ken Oden is nearing the end of a criminal investigation into allegations that Austin city schools officials changed student data to raise state accountability ratings of schools there.

Since the investigation began, one Austin staff member has resigned. In addition, a deputy superintendent has announced her retirement, although her attorney denied last week that there was any connection to the probe.

Mr. Oden plans to conclude the presentation of his case before a grand jury within a month.

"We are dealing with the consequences of greater and greater pressure on school administrators to put forth the best performance on school tests," Mr. Oden said. "That kind of atmosphere is what breeds greater temptation to manipulate ratings for your school."

In what represents a stepped-up effort on the part of the state to investigate possible test-related misconduct, the Texas Education Agency has ordered 11 school districts to review reports of excessive erasures on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

Changing Scores?

TAAS exams are given annually to students in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 10. Scores from the high-profile tests are combined with attendance and graduation rates to give schools a state accountability rating.

The recent investigations were prompted by a review of reports from the state's testing contractor, which identified schools with an excessive number of erasures and corrections on tests over three years. Some critics have charged that, until last year, the state was too lax in pursuing such suspected irregularities.

Following the review, Commissioner of Education Mike Moses ordered the districts with the identified schools to investigate the erasures and report back to the state education agency by the first of next month. The districts are: Clint, Dallas, Ector County, Fort Bend, Houston, Laredo, Midland, North Forest, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, San Felipe-Del Rio Consolidated, and Wilmer-Hutchins.

"The TAAS is the cornerstone of the accountability system," Mr. Moses wrote in a letter to the districts. "As such, it is imperative that the integrity of the accountability system be kept intact."

While the Houston Independent School District had begun its own investigation of erasures at eight schools, it subsequently added eight more schools to its probe based on the state's data.

Earlier this month, the 210,000-student district fired a Kashmere Gardens Elementary School teacher after investigators found that an answer key was used to change student answers in the teacher's classroom.

The school's principal also received a letter of reprimand from the district, citing inadequate security of test papers. In addition, the principal at Cullen Middle School received a similar letter after investigators found that two students' answers were changed. It is not known who made the changes.

Rod Paige

"The vast majority of our employees would never cheat," Houston Superintendent Rod Paige said in a written statement. "But make no mistake about it: If we find any of our employees cheated on the TAAS test, we will fire them."

In the state capital, Austin, a several-month criminal investigation into a different type of records-tampering is drawing to a close before a grand jury.

The case began last fall, when Commissioner Moses asked the Austin city schools to look into changes to student records by district officials.

An investigation commissioned by the 76,000-student Austin schools found that, because of changes to student-identification numbers, some students' low scores on last spring's TAAS exams were not factored into school accountability ratings.

As a result, two district administrators were reprimanded and four school principals received letters of warning last fall.

"It is important that the Austin community realizes that we have returned integrity to our accountability system," said Andy Welch, the district's spokesman.

The investigation also resulted in the ratings of Travis Heights and Blackshear elementary schools being dropped one level to "low-performing" from "acceptable." Bryker Woods Elementary School's rating fell two levels to "acceptable" from "exemplary."

"The changes [were] undertaken ... with the specific purpose of impacting school ratings," according to the report prepared for the Austin schools by Moak, Casey & Associates, a school consulting firm in Austin.

Austin's not out of the woods.

Mr. Oden, the county attorney, is presenting evidence to a grand jury of possible criminal misconduct by school system employees. He has expanded the initial scope of his investigation to include dropout statistics, personnel information, payroll records, and other data.

Mr Welch said the district is cooperating fully with the probe.

"Our criminal investigation has made no charges or conclusions," Mr. Oden said in an interview last week. "We would not want to imply that anyone should be charged at this point."

He hopes his investigation sends a strong message elsewhere.

"Where there is evidence of intentionally falsifying records to produce a false result," he said, "that is the same kind of intent that makes behavior criminal in other areas."

Vol. 18, Issue 27, Pages 22, 28

Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as Texas Presses Districts in Alleged Test-Tampering Cases
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