The Fix Is In

Are educators cheating on TAAS? Is anyone going to stop them?

Two teachers who have moved from Kashmere Gardens to other schools say they were shocked when their normally struggling students received high marks on the TAAS. One says she had an overflow class of particularly low-performing students one year, yet almost all of them received "academic recognition" when their scores came back, even one whom she had tried to get tested for learning disabilities. "When I saw the test scores, I said, 'There's no way those kids passed.' I mean, they couldn't read."

She remembers that a veteran Kashmere Gardens faculty member told her not to worry if her students didn't seem like they could pass the test. "Just help them," the older teacher advised.

The younger teacher, who says her colleague was "a pointer" who would tell children to go back and rework problems they had gotten wrong, replied, "I am not helping them.... That's a disservice to those children because they can't read now, they're not going to read next year, and everybody thinks they can read."

Artificially boosting scores may be one way to draw favorable attention to a school, but it does no justice to children like the one whom the teacher tried to have tested for learning disabilities. His mother, who asked that neither she nor her son be named, says he passed the TAAS every year. Now, she's noticed her son has serious difficulty reading, and she's tutoring him every night to prepare for this year's TAAS.

Records obtained by the Press show that one fourth-grader at Kashmere who received high marks on last year's TAAS -- a 92 out of 94 on reading and an 83 out of 93 on math -- scored well below grade level on the Stanford Achievement Test and, this year, was in danger of failing courses.

Parent volunteer Julia Keller, who until recently helped out in the school library every day, says even she's heard rumors of test-tampering. "I've heard a lot of teachers around that school myself, personally, say that that's what [the school] was doing on these TAAS tests. I just said it was a shame." Keller recently withdrew her twin fifth-graders, Derric and Erric, to transfer them to another school.

Although neither of the former Kashmere Gardens teachers who spoke to the Press observed anyone tampering with tests, both left the school because they were convinced foul play had occurred. "I'm as sure as I can be without seeing [the answer forms] erased and changed," says one. "The scores were a joke."

The procedure for administering the TAAS offers no shortage of opportunities for those who want to "help" students pass. The sealed test booklets and answer forms arrive at a school a day or two before the test is scheduled to be given. The designated campus TAAS coordinator, usually the school counselor, signs for the tests and stores them in a secure place. On each day of testing, the coordinator passes out answer forms and booklets to each teacher in the morning and picks them up at the end of the testing period. The day after testing, the coordinator delivers the tests to HISD's testing center, and from there the tests are sent to Iowa City, Iowa, to be scored.

Overnight and after the test, the answer forms are in the control of the school administration. During those periods, the testing coordinator is permitted to darken light answers and erase stray marks on the answer forms to prevent the computer from misreading them.

The Kashmere teachers' suspicion of tampering is supported by statistical evidence in the form of a little-known and, until recently, little-used document called the erasure analysis. When tests are scored, the Texas Education Agency's testing contractor, National Computer Systems, scans each answer form for erasures and notes whether erased answers were changed from wrong to right, right to wrong or wrong to wrong. The resulting erasure analysis lists every classroom in the state whose kids had an especially high average numbers of erasures (the statewide average lies between zero and one erasure per child; the report lists classes with averages greater than three standard deviations from the mean).

A high number of erasures is not in itself evidence of cheating. The analysis tells you, for example, that in 1997 one of Scott Elementary's fifth-grade classes had a whopping eight erasures per child, and 96 percent of them went from wrong to right, but it doesn't tell you how or why. A class could have started at the wrong place on an answer form. Or one child who made a lot of mistakes could throw off the class average. Or an especially conscientious teacher could train her students to double-check their work. But mostly, those would be isolated incidents; a class showing up once on the erasure analysis is not cause for concern. What's interesting, however, is that some teachers show up year after year, and some entire schools show up much more frequently than others.

Over the past three years, 36 Kashmere Gardens classes appeared on the erasure analysis, more than any other HISD school, and 12 more than the school with the next-highest number of appearances, Key Middle School. With a 41-point improvement in math, only one other elementary school in the Northeast District, E.O. Smith, made gains that even came close to rivaling Kashmere Gardens's math scores. Most who improved did so by four to 12 percentage points. Despite its gains in reading and math, Kashmere's passing rate declined two percentage points on the writing test, which is more difficult to tamper with because it includes a written composition.

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