Friday, January 07, 2005

HISD Widens it Cheating Probe

Amid the testing flap, Saavedra creates an office to monitor fraud
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Two dozen Houston schools are being investigated for possible cheating, Superintendent Abe Saavedra said Thursday, while announcing he has put a veteran administrator in charge of rooting out academic fraud in HISD.

Saavedra released a list of 23 Houston Independent School District schools that his staff has identified as having scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills from 2004 that seem suspect. Those schools range from historically low-performing campuses to the highly respected High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Saavedra cautioned that investigators have not uncovered any conclusive evidence of cheating. Still, he said he is almost certain the scores at some schools are wrong.

"Some of these anomalies are so far off the scale that I don't believe that is the performance of the students," he said.

Two schools on the list were already under scrutiny — Sanderson and Osborne elementaries. Two schools not on the list, Wesley and Highland Heights elementaries, are under investigation over earlier allegations.

Robert Moore, HISD's assistant superintendent for internal audit since 1979, will run the newly created Office of Inspector General with his current staff of investigators and statisticians.

Moore, whose duties until now have centered on financial dealings, will have broad authority to investigate cheating and other cases of misconduct, Saavedra said.

"We must administer a testing process with total integrity," Saavedra said at a news conference attended by school board members and the heads of teacher and administrator organizations. "And on those few occasions when someone decides to violate the rules, HISD will take swift and decisive action to stop it."

Bonuses depend on tests
Some question whether an HISD insider is the best person for the job, when so many teachers and administrators, including Saavedra, are hoping to collect performance bonuses that are heavily based on test performance. Those bonuses, which annually cost the district about $7 million, top out at $800 for teachers, $5,000 for principals and $20,000 for higher-level administrators. Saavedra's maximum bonus is $60,000.

"Having the districts police themselves creates a potential for a conflict of interest," said professor Gregory Cizek, who teaches educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A better approach, Cizek said, would be to hire an outside firm for the job. The state of Indiana, for example, is negotiating a $25,000 contract with a Utah test security company.

Saavedra said he's confident HISD can handle the job itself, adding that the district's $1.3 billion budget has little wiggle room for new expenditures.

"We need to be fiscally responsible," he said.

Saavedra said later that he will re-evaluate the performance bonus system, both in terms of the amount of money and the measures used to determine who qualifies. But a financial incentive program of some sort will remain, he said, although some wonder whether the reward system has led to cheating.

"The tests were never designed for that kind of use," said Thomas Haladyna, an Arizona State University professor who has done extensive research on cheating. "When you connect bonuses to test scores, what do you expect?"

Teachers and administrators caught cheating face the loss of their educator certification and felony criminal charges that carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Saavedra said he couldn't recall any recent cases of HISD employees losing their certification or being convicted for test fraud.

When this year's round of TAKS testing begins next month, hundreds of HISD administrators and retirees will be monitoring classrooms for signs of cheating, Saavedra said. Some schools will be targeted for monitoring, while others will be chosen at random.

"On test day, we will empty out the central office," he said.

Cheating hot line planned
HISD will also create a telephone hot line for anyone to report cheating suspicions directly to Moore's office.

Although the school district has spent millions over the years analyzing schools with low TAKS passing rates, no resources until now have been put into determining whether the highest-performing schools really earned their ratings. Historically, HISD has only looked at the number of students passing the test at each school, not the number of questions those students answered correctly.

Saavedra conceded that HISD may have over-emphasized test scores in recent years.

"I will not second-guess what the intent was in the past," he said. "We will concentrate on teaching and learning and not concentrate on the test scores. ... Maybe we've concentrated too much on test scores."

School board Trustee Kevin Hoffman said he is pleased with Saavedra's plan but was surprised to hear the administrators haven't been looking for questionable test scores all along.

"The board assumed that some of these controls were in place, and it's been made real clear to us as of late that they are not," he said.

Questions first were raised about the validity of spectacular TAKS gains at four HISD elementary schools: Sanderson, Wesley, Osborne and Highland Heights. Students at various grade levels in those schools posted gains on TAKS that were significantly out of sync with their performance in prior and subsequent years.

Saavedra has already asked the Texas Education Agency to investigate how 31 of Sanderson's 38 fifth-graders tallied perfect scores on the TAKS math test last year. The district hired a private law firm in November to investigate Wesley's gains, even though at least one Wesley teacher voiced cheating allegations in the summer of 2003.

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