It was hard to believe, when the Houston Press first raised the question in February 1999, that Houston Independent School District teachers and principals might be cheating on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test for students. Amid ample praise for pumping up TAAS results, Kashmere Gardens Elementary principal Margaret Jefferson had explained her school's team effort for excellence: Even custodians, crossing guards and cafeteria workers had tutored the kids to reverse the sagging scores of the previous year, she said.
But after the hoopla over the high scores in 1998, teachers from Kashmere Gardens came forth with hard evidence that it might have been unwarranted. They described a testing environment of locked doors and drawn shutters; they told of underachieving students who did mysteriously well on the TAAS, and they listed the bonuses and other teacher benefits that came along with high scores. They suspected their fellow school employees of tampering with answer sheets. Statistics gathered by the state supported their suspicion. A third-grade Kashmere Gardens class, for example, had 15 times more erasures than the state average -- and every one of the erased answers was changed from wrong to right.
As a result of the Press investigative series ("The Fix Is In" and "Adding It All Up," by Shaila Dewan, February 25 and March 4, 1999), HISD launched its own internal investigation, firing one Kashmere Garden teacher. The district reprimanded and then asked for the resignation of Jefferson from her $73,000-a-year job.
But, just like those TAAS tests, HISD's final answer for Jefferson appears to have been changed as well. Just over a year after her ouster, she was back at work for the district even though administrative regulations state that "employees who resign in lieu of termination are not eligible for re-employment."
Jefferson was rehired as a substitute teacher at Sam Houston High School. And in an e-mail response to Press inquiries, HISD spokesman Terry Abbott offers little explanation.
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"This school year," he writes, "Ms. Jefferson was inadvertently allowed to rejoin the district as a substitute teacher. This was a mistake. She should not have been allowed to become a substitute teacher."
But the "inadvertent" employment lasted for more than a few days or even a few weeks. According to a Sam Houston employee, Jefferson had been substituting since February 22. That would put the former principal in her teaching role at the same time Sam Houston students were taking their TAAS tests last month. But Abbott says Jefferson "was not involved in any way in the TAAS testing this year." And the school's test scores don't seem to indicate tampering. Published reports state that only 56 percent of the school's tenth-graders passed the TAAS.
Jefferson and Sam Houston principal Roberto Gonzalez did not return a reporter's phone calls. But Jefferson won't be around for future TAAS exams at Sam Houston. "The district," writes Abbott, "has corrected the problem by removing Ms. Jefferson from the approved substitute teacher list." According to a source at Sam Houston, Jefferson was called to the front office early on Wednesday, May 10, after the Press inquiry began. She was told to leave the campus immediately.
E-mail Lauren Kern at firstname.lastname@example.org.