The Fix Is In

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

District spokesman Terry Abbott says it's possible such statistical clustering is a "coincidence."

"HISD is 25 percent larger than the next largest school district in Texas," Abbott says. "Is it conceivable that we could make up 30 percent of the erasure report? Sure. That doesn't mean there's a problem there....In order to determine if there's a problem there, we have to investigate. And that is what we're doing." Last July, the district undertook an investigation of eight schools -- Kashmere Gardens, Frost, Gregg, Hobby, Montgomery and Scott elementaries and Key and Cullen middle schools -- in a massive operation that some have taken to calling Erasergate.

An initial review of the erasure data, Abbott points out, "gives HISD reason to further investigate the scores from only 56 classes -- or less than one-half of one percent" of HISD's total. But according to district documents, the 56 classes aren't the only ones with problems, they're just the first group the district chose to examine.

Erasergate began after the 1998 TAAS, when HISD received "an anonymous tip that some teachers had improperly aided test takers," according to a July press release. Abbott says that tip prompted Paige's office to request the past five years of erasure data from the Texas Education Agency. After screening out the less egregious classes (such as those where less than 75 percent of the erasures went from wrong to right), the district identified 32 schools from 1998 alone that warranted a closer look, according to a draft memo by Manager of Student Assessment Sandra Kriendler, who declined to be interviewed by the Press.

Because reviewing individual answer forms and test documents would take so much time, Kriendler recommended that only the ten "most suspect" schools be investigated first (ultimately, time constraints reduced that to eight). From there, the district could decide "whether or not it wishes to invest more time and effort on the remaining schools." Kriendler's office has turned over the investigation of the first eight schools to the district's Professional Standards department, which is interviewing the TAAS coordinator and other employees at each school.

Teachers' union officials worry that the district will peg teachers for cheating, when -- they say -- principals are the ones with more incentive and opportunity to tamper with tests. When asked, Chief of Staff Sclafani insists the district is investigating "campuses," but HISD does appear predisposed to the idea that Erasergate will unearth only one type of guilty party. "If the investigators have reason to believe there was indeed wrongdoing," a district press release on the investigation says, "... the teachers will be banned from administering the test."

Lack of trust is one reason investigators may come up empty-handed when they try to interview employees. Because principals have been given so much power, Fallon says, employees -- particularly office aides who are likely to witness cheating but have less job protection than teachers -- are often afraid to speak up. "When it comes right down to it," says Jon Dansby, president of the Houston Educators Association, "Nobody's going to back them up."

Shaw agrees. "The fear factor in the district keeps people paralyzed," he says.

If you ask teacher Ada Johnson, a former counselor at Scott Elementary, she'll tell you she had a "wonderful relationship" with her boss, Principal Artice Hedgemon, until she tried to report cheating on the TAAS in 1996. In an administrative hearing, Johnson testified that she saw teachers pointing out answers and correcting children's work on the TAAS and informed the principal of the matter. When Johnson, who said she was so close to Hedgemon she served as the "unofficial" assistant principal, followed up on her allegations, Hedgemon became "very cold and very distant," Johnson testified. The next month, Hedgemon told Johnson that her counseling position was being cut.

Johnson, a district employee since 1970 whose job performance as a counselor had been evaluated at 4.3 to 4.66 on a 5-point scale, spent the next two years "awaiting assignment" in the lounge of the Northeast District office. During that period, the district filled 59 counselor positions.

Finally, Johnson, who taught English, a TAAS subject, when she was a classroom teacher, was assigned to teach high school social studies, a position where, she noted, "I would not be around the TAAS-taking procedure." The board of trustees, saying Johnson offered no hard evidence that she had attempted to report cheating on the TAAS test, denied her request to be assigned as a counselor, a more lucrative position than teacher. Deputy superintendent Bryant told the Press that "Ada Johnson has a long history of problems with the district" but refused to elaborate.

The district is now investigating Scott Elementary.
Ultimately, the district depends on those who witness impropriety to come forward; if HISD doesn't hear about cheating, it can't investigate it. But cases like Johnson's appear to support what many say about HISD: The district cultivates a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil culture, and there's no reward for those who want to call attention to wrongdoing. "The retaliation is not subtle," says union president Gayle Fallon. "It's blatant."

Yet just as cheating can be difficult to prove, so can retaliation. Often, as with Johnson's case, it's one person's word against another. The administrator is the one who's likely to be believed, Fallon says.

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