The Fix Is In

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

Fallon says her union once had a case where a principal directed teachers' aides to alter a test and, fearing the loss of their jobs, they complied. When they tried to come forward, Fallon asked the district to grant them immunity, and the district refused. Without protection, Fallon advised the aides not to report what they had seen. Houston Educators Association president Dansby says his union has been in similar situations. "If Governor Bush granted amnesty, his phone would be ringing off the hook," Dansby says.

Chief of Staff Sclafani contends it's difficult to protect someone who has participated in improper handling of the TAAS. "Somebody who comes to us in advance we certainly can protect," she says. "Somebody who participates in cheating, it's a little difficult to say that they shouldn't be held accountable. I think every teacher understands that the maintenance of their certification is dependent upon their ethical behavior, directive or no directive."

Nonetheless, Sclafani says, the district has tried to alleviate some of the fear of retaliation by implementing a whistle-blower policy and installing a hot line to take anonymous complaints. "We know that in some cases employees don't have full confidence in the process that will be used. And we want them to -- we want them to know that this district stands for what's right. And we need them to stand with us on what's right. And we've given them an anonymous way to bring the information forward so that we can deal with the action and make sure that nobody is working in an environment that is less than totally ethical and legal."

Still, the perception persists that the district does not welcome complaints. Fallon says she tells union members not to use the hot line because she doesn't trust the district to keep the information private. In a termination hearing that Sclafani presided over, M.C. Williams Principal Roy Morgan testified that his supervisor showed him a hot line complaint accusing Morgan of abusing students. The principal said the hot line transmittal noted when and from where the call was made, and from that he was able to deduce -- correctly -- who had made the call.

Abbott says hot line transmittals don't record where a call emanates from, adding that the principal was most likely confused about what he saw on the form.

Still, principals in HISD have a virtual fiefdom when it comes to who works for them. They can transfer, or even fire, employees, who then have to fight their way through the system. "[Employees have] all these procedures to turn things in," says Fallon. "Of course, their life is hell after they do it. Heads, they're screwed. Tails, they're screwed."

Sometimes allegations of cheating simply disappear between the district's layers of bureaucracy. Suzanne Ely, who taught at Cornelius Elementary in the South Central District in the 1996-97 school year, reportedly told the district of cheating. Ely, now a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, confirmed that she made such allegations but declined to give details, adding that the district took no action. According to Abbott, the district has no record of any communication from Ely, and an open records request turned up no allegations concerning Cornelius Elementary.

One of the teachers who left Kashmere Gardens also reported cheating beginning in 1994 -- twice to Carl Shaw, whom the teacher says advised a transfer to a different school (Shaw says while he doesn't remember the exact incident, under certain circumstances, such as a teacher unwilling to make a signed allegation, he might have told a teacher to transfer), and once to an official in the Northeast District office. "The district knew about it," the teacher says.

Bryant insists the district vigilantly pursues any hint of suspicion. "Any time we give TAAS or any other test, if there are rumors, there are allegations, we must follow up and check everyone if it takes us a year or two," Bryant says. "It's our obligation, and that's what we sign our name to."

Last May, North District Superintendent Erasmo Teran received a letter alleging that TAAS booklets at one of his schools were tampered with. The letter was signed "Berry Elementary Staff." Subsequent signed letters from individual teachers complained that, among other things, Berry Principal Graciela Kavulla had announced that the school was "exemplary" shortly after the test was administered (but before it was scored), and that campus TAAS coordinator Patricia Morgan had been seen going through test booklets with a pencil in hand, an activity that's bound to look suspicious to those who don't know that coordinators can remove stray marks.

The investigation documents provide an inside view of how schools handle the TAAS, and of how HISD handles its investigations.

Last year, Berry's TAAS performance jumped from 57 percent of kids passing reading, writing and math to 94.5 percent passing, a leap Kavulla attributed to an aggressive plan she developed over the summer of 1997. In her interview with Mike Martin, who investigated the case, Kavulla said the school closely monitored each child's progress throughout the year. In a school as small as Berry, Kavulla succinctly pointed out, "Seven, ten kids can knock it out for you."

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