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When the results of last spring's Texas Assessment of Academic Skills were reported, little Kashmere Gardens Elementary was the star of the show in the Houston Independent School District. The nearly all-black inner-city school had outdone itself since the previous year, when only 54 percent of the school's fourth-graders had passed the reading portion of the all-important TAAS, and even fewer, 37 percent, passed in math, a chillingly low figure for any HISD principal.
The school made a robust effort to make sure not one of its 588 children fell through the cracks, according to Principal Margaret Jefferson, who later told the Houston Chronicle that even the school's custodians, crossing guards and food service personnel tutored students who needed extra help. Colorful reminders blared from the school's billboards and posters: "Soar High on TAAS."
When the scores came back, the news was almost too good to be true: Every single eligible fourth grader passed both the reading and math portions of the test, boosting the school from a rating of "acceptable" to "recognized." District dignitaries swooped down from their perches high in the HISD bureaucracy to congratulate the school. Not a visitor left the campus without a full briefing on how well Kashmere had done. Even the K-Ram cheerleaders aerialed themselves onto the bandwagon, yelling: "Kashmere Rams gonna bust that test! Swing it all around! Show who's the best!"
"Our success," Jefferson told the Chronicle, "was a deliberate plan."
Just how deliberate is cause for much speculation among Kashmere Gardens's past and current teachers, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. Some of them suspect that school employees tampered with student answer forms to improve the school's scores, and statistical evidence lends support to what they say. Last year, one third-grade class at Kashmere had 15 times more erasures than the state average, and 100 percent of the answers were changed from wrong to right. Students who perform poorly in their classes and on other tests do mysteriously well on the TAAS. Yet despite the evidence, the question is daunting: Would a school really go so far as to outright cheat?
Although educators are not, on the whole, known to be a disreputable bunch, given the high stakes of the test it's a reasonable question. The party line about the pervasive emphasis on the TAAS is that it's "for the children," but there are other, more immediate reasons to make sure scores are high.
In the world of public education in Texas, no test -- not the SAT, not the final exam, not the weekly spelling quiz, not the entrance test for gifted and talented programs -- comes close to matching the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in importance. The exit-level TAAS, given beginning in tenth grade, is the one test students must pass before graduating from high school.
Before high school, children take the test every year beginning in third grade, but those results are used to rate campuses and school districts, not students. Schools that consistently score low on the TAAS risk being taken over or even shut down by the state. In some districts, including HISD, principals whose schools don't do well enough can lose their jobs.
Performing well has its rewards. Teachers receive candy, flowers -- and pay bonuses. There are banquets and press conferences, banners and marching bands and, most important in terms of public perception, school ratings: "exemplary" or "recognized" for schools that show muscle, "acceptable" or "low-performing" for those that lag behind. Upper-level management shares in the bounty: HISD's Superintendent of Schools, Rod Paige, can receive a bonus of up to $25,000 based solely on the district's TAAS scores.
The kids, on the other hand, have to be brainwashed into caring, since the test doesn't particularly affect them. To that end, schools use "TAAS It Up!" pep rallies and motivational slogans, Saturday tutorials and endless practice tests, test-taking strategy books such as Breaking the Code and bribes of AstroWorld tickets, parties and special clubs. Much of this institutional hysteria is not, one assumes, what lawmakers envisioned when they put the test in place, but it's legal and some of it might even work.
On the other hand, one might suppose that outright cheating would be difficult to do. What with the TAAS's status as the be all and end all of Texas public education, the state might be expected to put massive roadblocks in the way of any would-be tamperer. But in fact, there is nothing short of integrity to stop a school from artificially raising scores, and the list of required equipment is short: All you need is a No. 2 pencil with a good eraser.
According to Kashmere Gardens Principal Margaret Jefferson, the Chronicle reported, the school's motto is "Striving for Exemplary Success." But one former teacher has another version of the Kashmere credo: "Do what you have to do." Instead of crossing guards or cafeteria workers tutoring students (which several teachers say they've never seen), employees describe tests administered with window shades pulled and doors locked, teachers not permitted to give the test to their own classes and poor students earning mysteriously high scores. (Jefferson declined to be interviewed by the Press.)