The Fix Is In

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

Kavulla's plan focused on using test-taking "strategies," such as underlining key words and drawing arrows when rounding numbers. Children who used the strategies successfully on practice tests were rewarded with, among other things, movies and popcorn. They were told if they used the strategies on the TAAS, they would get a trip to AstroWorld.

That wasn't all they got. One teacher interviewed by Martin, Kristy Mikus, said Kavulla gave teachers candy and instructed them to give it out during the TAAS test to kids who were using the strategies. If a child was not using the strategies, Mikus said, Kavulla told her to whisper "Use the strategies" to the child during the test. Mikus also said Kavulla encouraged her to send low-performing kids to the nurse if they weren't feeling well.

Such practices, however questionable, were minor points compared to the question of whether or not children's answers had been changed after the fact. As campus TAAS coordinator, Morgan was responsible for distributing and collecting the tests. She told investigators that several office aides and one teacher helped her erase stray marks from the answer forms and said she checked over every test booklet to make sure that kids were using the strategies. She and the other employees who "cleaned up" answer forms all denied changing any students' answers or seeing anyone changing answers. A review of the answer forms, according to Martin's report, uncovered no evidence that tests had been tampered with.

However, interview transcripts reveal a few troubling details that never made it into Martin's report. One was Mikus's description of rewarding kids with candy during the test. Another was that an office aide who inspected answer forms, Mirna Garcia, told Martin she was told to put aside those where students had left questions blank.

Even more startling, Morgan was permitted to keep the answer forms for three extra days. "I always turned them in late and there's never been a problem," Morgan told the investigator. "They've always said, 'Just get them there as soon as you can, as soon as you've finished what you have to do.' "

Her admission was not enough to alarm the district. When asked about it, Teran issued the ultimate see-no, hear-no response: "There is no information that the school regularly turned in the test late."

Still another odd finding raised no official eyebrows: Morgan made her own answer key for the test. "Ms. Morgan denied that she took the TAAS but acknowledged that she did write down several question numbers and corresponding answer letters on a yellow tablet," the report says. "Ms. Morgan also acknowledged that she did in fact use the yellow tablet to compare several students [sic] answers." As to why Morgan wanted to compare students' answers, no explanation is offered.

Still, the district had decided to investigate Kavulla, not Morgan, and Martin said he could not confirm charges that Kavulla violated testing regulations. As far as Morgan and her assistants' reviewing test forms to see how children performed and checking booklets to see if children used strategies, Martin wrote that "one can interpret" such activities as a violation of TAAS regulations, which state, "There must be no unauthorized viewing of the contents of test booklets and answer documents" and "No person may review student responses without specific permission."

The district insists the investigation uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing.
In still another case, HISD decided there was no problem without even investigating. In the spring of 1997, an anonymous call prompted Sandra Kriendler's office to review erasure data on Kashmere High School. Kriendler's office reported that there were "a significant number" of students who had more than 75 percent of their erasures going from wrong to right. Furthermore, the report noted, "Several test booklets were marked with the original answer choice, yet were not marked with the change in answer choice. Others showed the change, but whereas the original marking was in marker or pencil, the change was made in a different medium. This suggests that someone other than the student made the change."

Kriendler recommended that Professional Standards and Student Assessment interview staff and students, that students' test scores be compared with their previous attempts to pass the exit-level exam, and that the district "should give the TEA periodic updates on the progress of our investigation."

The district did none of those things. An open records request turned up nothing further about Kashmere High. Asked to explain, Abbott provided a somewhat squirmy account of events.

First, Abbott said the area superintendent for the Northeast District, who at that time was Charles Herbert, had his staff readminister the TAAS to the Kashmere students. "The state provided an alternate test," Abbott said. "The kids did better, many of them, than on the original test. Obviously, this was the best way to handle the situation. If there was some sort of impropriety with the original testing, certainly a new test would answer that question."

When TEA senior director of assessment Keith Cruse said he had no knowledge of alternate tests being issued, the Press questioned Abbott again. Abbott queried district personnel and relayed that the district had used a previously released TAAS (the state releases them after they're given) and scored the tests in-house. "Using a released test made sure that it wasn't the same test [the students took before]," Abbott said.

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