By Aaron Reiss
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Furthermore, Kashmere's appearances on the erasure analysis correlate with the school's scores. In 1996, when the school was rated "exemplary," 16 classes show up on the erasure analysis. In 1997, when Kashmere Gardens librarian William Price says the school had been warned that the district would be closely monitoring its TAAS administration, there were five classes on the erasure analysis. The school's rating dropped two notches, to "acceptable." In 1998, when scores skyrocketed to nearly 100 percent passing, so did the number of classes appearing on the erasure analysis -- to 15.
Even with that kind of evidence, pinning down perpetrators isn't easy, as former HISD TAAS coordinator Carl Shaw knows only too well. Shaw oversaw HISD's department of student assessment from 1981 to 1995, when he left for a job as head of research and evaluation at Fort Worth ISD. Early on, Shaw advocated the state's accountability system, and he has served on numerous state committees dealing with assessment and the TAAS. Now he works for himself as an independent, Austin-based consultant who's developed assessments used in alternative education programs.
While Shaw, a bluntly spoken man with a hint of country twang, supports the idea of testing Texas students, he's disappointed in both the way the TAAS is structured and the way it's administered. He became an independent consultant because he grew weary of what he calls the "conspiracy" of an educational establishment which, he says, would find any way possible to conceal the truth about student performance. Cheating, he stresses, was only one of those ways.
"There's so dang much cheating in Houston," Shaw says, but the district's attitude about punishing cheaters was, he adds, "blase."
"Unless the perpetrator broke down and confessed and offered to resign, nothing ever happened," Shaw says. "I can think of one case where it was so blatant that we got involved and got all the little kids interviewed, and by the time we got it to a hearing a year later all the kids had forgotten about it, every one of them. It was kind of strange."
Although he declined to name any specific schools, Shaw remembers another case where, he believes, a school got ahold of the TAAS writing topic early and used it to coach students before the test. "The principal lied and they got by with it. They made up all kinds of bull crap. When you see this stuff, and you see the product of kids' efforts over the years, you know when you're being lied to and when you're not."
It was thanks to Shaw that National Computer Systems began doing the erasure analysis back in 1993 or 1994. Shaw suspected an HISD school (not Kashmere Gardens) of tampering, so he worked with the contractors to devise a way to screen answer forms. Although the analysis appeared to confirm his suspicions, Shaw says, nothing happened to the school; even if tampering is detected, there's often no way to determine who did it. Furthermore, Shaw admits, cheating investigations are not a task anyone is eager to undertake if they don't have to. In the case of the tampering, he says, "The teachers didn't know this had occurred, and they were so durn proud of what happened ... the pride was there before we figured out what was going on." In that case, Shaw says, the threat of investigation was enough: "As soon as the method [of tampering] got detected it kind of went away."
That might be the case again this year. When deputy superintendent of school administration Faye Bryant discovered the erasure analysis, she responded by notifying every campus TAAS coordinator of its existence. She warned in a memo that the district would more closely monitor schools "during and after" TAAS administrations. "With the growing accountability attached to TAAS scores, it is essential that you maintain the highest integrity during the test," Bryant wrote.
Bryant may not have been aware of the analysis before this year because the district doesn't put it to regular use. In fact, HISD hadn't even noticed a stark fact that begs for explanation: while many of Texas's 1,042 school districts never register excessive erasures, a full 31 percent of the classes that show up on the statewide erasure analysis for the past three years are from HISD, which has only 5 percent of the state's students. Furthermore, erasures become a problem when school ratings are involved: Over the past three years, 71 HISD eighth-grade classes have shown up on the reading, writing and math portions of the TAAS, while only 14 have shown up on the science and social studies portions, which are not included in accountability ratings.
Asked to explain the district's high occurrence of erasures, Chief of Staff for Instructional Services Susan Sclafani, the district's second-in-command, said, "We were only concerned about what was happening in our district, so I didn't even look at how the numbers compared."
The district also hadn't noticed that of the 29 schools with more than five classes showing up on the analysis in the past three years, 26 of them are in one of three sub-districts: the Northeast, headed before this year by Superintendent Charles Herbert; South Central, headed before this year by Superintendent Andre Hornsby; or South, headed by Larry Alexander. The numbers don't surprise American Federation of Teachers president Gayle Fallon. Those districts, she notes, have higher levels of poverty and more low-performing schools, schools that might have difficulty coping with cranked-up pressure to pass the TAAS. Beyond that, Fallon cites a fear-based management style. "Whenever we hear something negative," she says, "South and South Central show up." Fallon says the supers in those districts had an "autocratic, my-way-or-the-highway" leadership style. "Consequently," she says, "We found principals that were really afraid of their bosses."