Making (Up) the Grade

This HISD program teaches a big lesson: Don't question what the district touts

In late February Kellow was sitting at his desk when his boss, assistant superintendent Kathryn Sanchez, told him to bring her the e-mail message he had sent to the association of evaluators. HISD officials had been getting phone calls.

Kellow went to the on-line archive, printed out his message and walked into her office.

Paige disputes the findings by the district's own evaluator and defends CEP.
Paige disputes the findings by the district's own evaluator and defends CEP.

"Have you ever read 1984?" Kellow now asks. "I felt like Winston Smith -- I had betrayed the Ministry of Truth, and it was only a matter of time before they picked me up. I felt the same relief he felt."

He says Sanchez asked him how he could do this. He didn't have the authority.

"I felt both an ethical, but more importantly, a moral imperative to make sure people are aware," Kellow says. He recalls telling her, "You're sending these kids to an educational death camp."

Sanchez told Kellow she had to talk to her supervisors, he remembers. Kellow walked back to his desk, backed up all of his personal files on a disk and went home.

A copy of his CEP report was already in his grandmother's safe.

The next morning Kellow couldn't log onto his HISD computer. He asked Sanchez if he was fired. No, she said. But he was going to get an "official letter of reprimand" and an "independent work station," which would not have Internet access, e-mail or even a printer. "Show me a computer I can print on, and I'll tender my resignation in five minutes," Kellow says he told her.

Kellow remembers Sanchez giving him a hug and telling him that he was an intelligent man who needed to realize that he couldn't save the world. He handed her his letter of resignation.

Paige says he doesn't know if Kellow made a mistake or if he had some sort of malicious intent. All Paige knows is that the results are wrong and the incident "is disappointing."

"When you get data from a statistician, you should be able to believe it," Paige says.

Richardson, CEO of the company, argues that the TAAS isn't a good measure of progress; students may improve by multiple grade levels and still be so far behind that they don't pass TAAS standards at their grade level. However, in an effort to illustrate progress at the school, Richardson brought a sample student's improved TAAS scores to the Press. (Kellow also examined scores on the Texas Learning Index, since they show growth.)

Richardson thinks Kellow, like Ravitch, should have just used CEP's data. Its evaluation method has been validated by Mike Beck, the Pleasantville, New York, assessment expert who validated the TAAS. "We can't lie," Richardson says. "The tests have been validated."

However, Kellow's not the first researcher to differ with CEP's claims. For the last four years the county contracted Carl Shaw, former executive director of HISD student assessment, to evaluate the CEP program. Shaw found minimal academic gain. But often he has confirmed Kellow's results.

"You gotta wonder what's going on," Shaw says. CEP and the HISD administration dispute Shaw's findings because his test has yet to be officially validated by the Texas Education Agency. HISD spokesman Abbott also says that Kellow's research was poor because Kellow didn't personally visit the school. Kellow says he wasn't allow to visit.

As for on-site visits, Margaret Baudat, acting director of the Harris County Community and Juvenile Justice Education Department, made an unannounced appearance at the Beechnut campus the first week of school. She found that CEP didn't seem ready for the students.

Roughly 95 percent of the kids were returning from CEP summer school or the previous year, yet all of them were required to go through the two-week orientation with new students. And students didn't have course schedules or textbooks. While CEP usually boasts it has one instructor and an assistant for every 25 students, Baudat noted that class rosters showed 30 to 34 students per room with only one instructor.

"It seemed as if they were a bit ill-prepared," Baudat says. "We were a little upset."

Another unexpected visitor was Harris County sheriff's deputy Lennon Evans, a certified crime prevention specialist. He did a safety audit of CEP in mid-November. Evans saw students arriving unsupervised, the security gate arm up and metal detectors not working properly.

"The opportunity for crime is high throughout the campus," Evans wrote.

Ken Thomas, CEP director of operations, responded to county officials that all security measures were under control. Everything was fine, he assured.

More assurances flow from teachers' union president Fallon. Her 13-year-old godson is a CEP student, and she says the program has worked wonders for him. So much so that she has enrolled him for another year.

Only hours after she and others met with the Press to defend CEP, Fallon wrote her own e-mail to the evaluators' association. She decried Kellow's credibility and defended the administration's punishment of Kellow for improper use of HISD computers.

Kellow stands firm that his numbers are accurate; he only wishes the situation had stayed quiet long enough for him to run a second set of tests to further support his work. For all the recent flap over his findings, his CEP report had been routinely accepted by supervisors without question.

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