Grade Charades?

The dramatic fall from grace continues for Kashmere Gardens Elementary, once a shining jewel in the Houston school district's aggressive publicity campaign touting high test scores.

The first results since a cheating scandal was uncovered this spring show a stunning drop in scores on the minimum-skills TAAS test for the northside school, according to records obtained by the Houston Press from the Texas Education Agency and HISD.

In 1998 the school, whose student body is almost exclusively African- American and economically disadvantaged, stunned observers with its TAAS results: 100 percent of the school's fourth-graders, for instance, passed the reading and math portions of the exam.

This year's results are dismal. Only 17 percent of the fourth-graders passed all sections of the TAAS; fewer than half of this year's fifth-graders did so, despite showing such ease with the exam when they were fourth-graders last year.

The percentage of Kashmere Gardens third-graders passing the TAAS math test fell from 99 percent to 20; for reading the third-grade passing rate fell from 100 percent to 54 percent.

Overall, the percentage of students at the school passing all sections of the TAAS test fell from 88 percent last year to 29 percent this year.

In April, before this year's TAAS tests were taken, HISD requested the resignation of Kashmere Gardens principal Margaret Jefferson. She had earlier been reprimanded by the district for failing to maintain adequate security during testing.

The district is "now in discussions" with Jefferson about her future, HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said. She is still being paid, but her contract for employment as a principal will not be renewed when it expires in August, he said. Jefferson was "reassigned to administrative duties," Abbott said, but he could not determine by press time what those duties were.

"The expectation is that she will not be coming back to the district," he said.

The Press reported in two articles ["The Fix Is In" and "Adding It All Up," by Shaila Dewan, February 25 and March 4] that TAAS tests from Kashmere Gardens contained erasures -- changing wrong answers to correct ones -- to a degree far higher than the rest of the state.

Scores also dropped at two other schools where teachers were asked to resign in connection with HISD's probe. At Alcott Elementary, the percentage of third-graders passing the math portion of the test fell from 81 percent to 32; in reading the percent passing fell from 95 percent to 52 percent.

At Frost Elementary, the percentage of third-graders passing math fell from 83 percent to 40; in reading, from 90 percent to 47.

The drops weren't as steep at other schools investigated by the district, but overall TAAS scores were down.

District officials said they expected an overall decline in scores after tightening the rules on which students could be exempted from taking the exam. Critics had charged that the district was loosely interpreting state guidelines in order to keep lower-achieving students from bringing down passing rates.

Almost 92,000 HISD students took the TAAS test this year, an increase of 6,000 over the previous year. The percentage of eligible students taking the test increased from 84 percent to 89 percent.

HISD labeled its changed policies on exemptions a "bold decision" that set it apart from other districts in the state. According to an HISD press release, HISD Superintendent Rod Paige "said HISD owes it to the public to test every child who can be tested, and to give the public a realistic view of academic performance. The HISD school board approved this bold change in policy even though many other school districts continue to exempt those children from the TAAS."

Districtwide, most of the drops in the passing rates were relatively slight. The percentage of fourth-graders passing the reading portion of the test, for example, fell from 81 percent to 75 percent.

Abbott would not comment specifically on the scores at Kashmere Gardens "because of the fact that we are going to be going school by school, looking at the results at places where there were big drops. In a large number of those places we think we are going to find that the drops were caused primarily by the change in students getting exemptions, but we want to know all the facts.

"Until we investigate the findings there [at Kashmere Gardens], it wouldn't be right to comment."

Complete school-by-school TAAS test results are available on the Houston Press Web site at www.houstonpress.com.

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