By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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"It's always, 100 percent of the time, they protect the administrators," says union president Dansby. He adds that typically that protection extends to even those who are fired.
As for Kashmere High, Lucio says he has yet to receive a final report from the district. A year and a half has passed since the incident. "The last I heard from them, the investigation was still ongoing," Lucio says. Neither he nor his supervisor, Cruse, knew about the district's in-house readministration of the tests, or the precipitous drop in scores. "Normally, I should know about these things," Lucio says.
Yet Lucio is not losing any sleep over the matter. In fact, he affably offered excuses for HISD's tardiness, including the explanation that Kriendler has only had her job for "a couple of years."
"I'm pretty easygoing on this," Lucio says. "I'm not one of those people who goes around and actually uses strong-arm tactics."
The state's cavalier attitude stops just short of encouraging cheating. In fact, the way Shaw sees it, the Texas Education Agency has no more incentive than school districts to strong-arm cheaters. "There's certainly a suspicion in my mind that professionalism does not prevail in the state of Texas when it comes to testing and...making sure that everything is proper," Shaw says. "The agency is a political entity. They depend on their survival from the legislature and they're not about to shake anybody up."
As proof that the TEA really is on top of things, Smisko points to a major case last year where high-level officials in Austin ISD improved the district's ratings by manipulating data with what the agency called "laser-like precision." The fact that they were detected, she says, shows the system is working.
But the agency didn't catch on to the statistical sleight-of-hand until Austin schools inadvertently tipped them off, by calling to find out why their ratings had not yet been changed.
Even then, nothing happened to Austin ISD. "There is no punishment for the district itself other than the high level of embarrassment this will cause them," TEA spokeswoman Ratcliffe admitted to the Austin-American Statesman. "There is no legal sanction for the district." The case has prompted a state legislative proposal to make TAAS data-tampering a felony, and last week the Travis County Attorney announced that a grand jury would review evidence of possible criminal activity on the part of the district.
Smisko says Commissioner Moses has "aggressively pursued" complaints of cheating on the TAAS, yet the agency has revoked only one certificate for TAAS-related offenses, back in 1993. Since then, it has reprimanded or suspended certificates on five occasions.
"The bottom line is, we think educators are moral and ethical," says Smisko. "We believe they're doing the right thing and they're setting a standard for kids, and they're not in general, en masse, cheating on this test."
That may be true, but the incentive to cheat is hard to ignore. For every educator who comes in contact with the TAAS, high scores equate to money. The district gives employees two kinds of incentive pay. One is based on a campus accountability rating (determined primarily by TAAS scores), and divided among all school employees (except the principal), based on salary range, which means two teachers at the same school receive about the same amount, regardless of their classes' relative performance. The average payment last year, according to district figures, was $627.
Principals don't get incentive pay, but the majority in HISD earn $7,500 extra a year in exchange for having "performance contracts" that allow them to be terminated if they don't do their job. Clearly, that job includes improving TAAS scores. "A teacher doesn't have, economically, that much to lose if they have a bad TAAS year," Fallon points out. "The principals can find themselves unemployed."
Furthermore, incentives can work to the detriment of inner-city schools by driving teachers out. "Teachers have a very easy way to improve their TAAS scores," Fallon says. "Change schools."
The money trail leads all the way to the top. Superintendent of Schools Rod Paige has a vested interest in seeing the district's TAAS scores rise, as the amount of his annual bonus -- up to 25 grand -- is based solely on how well the district performs on TAAS. Texas Association of School Boards spokesperson Barbara Williams calls such contract provisions "rare." For two of the past three years, Paige has received all $25,000. In fact, Paige can get his bonus even if the district's TAAS scores go down, as long as the state's overall scores decline more.
Money aside, district and state both place a huge emphasis on the TAAS -- soaring scores are, after all, a great draw for businesses and good bragging rights for politicians. With Governor Bush's proposal to end social promotion by keeping children who don't pass the test from moving on to the next grade, a plan that gives children a genuine motive to perform well, the test's importance will only grow.
Critics of Bush's proposal complain the TAAS is a simple yardstick that measures a complex system. As long as the TAAS is the only yardstick, schools will continue to find ways to circumnavigate it. "[Cheating] is just one example of the systemic problem of trying to impact results beyond what the teaching of the children would reflect," says Shaw. Shaw points out that Texas' system is not unusual. In virtually every other state testing program, those who are measured and rewarded by the test are the same as those who administer it.