The Fix Is In

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

Generally speaking, this sort of retesting would put any doubts about test security to rest. But in order to get valid results the test must be readministered quickly -- within four weeks of the original test. "If you went six weeks or longer you would expect increased scores," Cruse says.

Pressed further, Abbott again queried, and again relayed that the tests had been readministered the following January, eight months later. By then the 1997 TAAS would have been released, so how did the district make sure the kids weren't taking the exact same test they took in the spring?

Well, now that you mention it, Abbott said, they didn't. "The test was the same test. Would the children have remembered the questions? No. If so, the math scores wouldn't have gone down slightly."

Press: Wait a minute, the math scores went down?
Abbott: "On math, 133 were tested the first time and 88.4 percent passed. On the retest, 105 were tested, but only 69 of the original kids who took the test. On the math retest, the passing rate was 56 percent."

Okay, bear with us for a minute while we review: Kriendler found troubling evidence of tampering on Kashmere's TAAS tests. Students -- a substantially different group of students -- took the same test again, eight months later, and the number who passed math dropped more than 30 percentage points. From this, the district concluded that there was no substance to the allegations that someone, or many someones, at Kashmere High cheated.

The Texas Education Agency has very little to say about the district's foot-dragging. In the opinion of those who work at TEA, HISD is problem-free and the TAAS is adequately secure. After all, as the agency's associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment and technology Ann Smisko is quick to point out, every educator who handles the test signs a security oath.

Signed oaths, much like group prayer or homeopathic medicines, might have some beneficial effect, but it's hard to argue that they function materially to prevent cheating. On the other hand, they're cheap. More concrete security measures such as outside proctors, tamper-proof baggies for answer forms, or extra seals on booklets cost too much, the agency claims. "Just simple things like that just increase the price tremendously," says Joe Lucio, head of the TEA's TAAS Security Task Force. "We're testing over two million kids per year, so that's a lot of money if you put something per student."

On the local level, too, resources are scarce, HISD has so little manpower to investigate cheating, the district won't even venture a guess as to when Erasergate will be completed. And although some Texas districts have implemented their own safeguards, such as picking up the test from schools every night, HISD has yet to follow their lead. "There is no test that can be secured," Fallon says, "if the administration doesn't want it to be."

Since the Texas Education Agency doesn't put resources into test security on the front end, one might assume they'd be extra vigilant on the back end. But while the agency has a special data unit that systematically scrutinizes "red-flag" statistics, such as absences or exemptions for children who are in special ed or have limited English skills, to see if they're higher than normal, no one at the agency systematically reviews the erasure analysis. In interviews conducted in December and January, four administrators --Smisko, Lucio, director of assessment Keith Cruse and Kay Thomas, executive assistant to the associate commissioner for accountability Linda Mora -- told the Press that they do not use the analysis.

"There just haven't been so many [reports] that we have determined to be real cheating that we felt the need to make a change in the [testing] procedure," Smisko said.

On January 22, however, the agency issued letters to 11 school districts including the Houston-area HISD, Fort Bend and North Forest, asking them to investigate excessive erasures. "It's the first time we've sent out a letter like that," says TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe. The letter, signed by Commissioner of Education Mike Moses, was drafted by Cruse, Mora and Smisko, Ratcliffe says.

The agency asked HISD to investigate 15 schools (including seven of the Erasergate eight) by April 1. Abbott points out that this is 5.2 percent of HISD's schools, while in the smaller districts, Fort Bend has been asked to investigate 15 percent of its schools and North Forest 20 percent.

That will be a tough deadline for HISD, which has yet to forward its investigation of Berry Elementary, dated November 2, to Lucio.

Lucio, who says he's never heard of Berry even though the investigation was reported by local media, is supposed to review all probes of TAAS-related improprieties within 30 days. After Lucio's review, the state can decide to punish educators even if school districts don't.

After the Berry investigation, HISD quietly got rid of Principal Kavulla (her contract was not renewed), a curious move considering the school was rated exemplary, and the allegations against Kavulla were supposedly "unfounded." Had the district -- which, Abbott says, is planning to submit the investigation report -- let the TEA review their findings, Kavulla might have faced further sanctions.

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