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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Teacher Tried to Report Test Cheating, Union Says

HISD Allegedly Wouldn't Grant Her Immunity; Now an Office on Oversight is Being Created

By Jason Spencer

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

A Key Middle School teacher tried to report cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test last spring but gave up when the Houston school district's top lawyer refused to grant her immunity from punishment, the teachers' union president said Friday.

Key is one of 25 Houston Independent School District campuses under investigation because of uncharacteristically high scores on the TAKS.

HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra announced Thursday that he would create an Office of Inspector General to scrutinize those scores to determine whether they resulted from legitimate academic improvement or cheating. The move was prompted by newspaper reports highlighting suspicious test performance at nearly 400 schools statewide.

The Key Middle School teacher told union representatives last year that a school administrator gave her and her colleagues advance copies of the 2004 test for their students to use as practice exams, said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. The teachers had believed the materials, which they found in their mailboxes, were copies of the prior year's exam, which Texas teachers routinely use to prepare their students for the TAKS, Fallon said.

"The teachers were given the test and didn't realize what they'd been given," she said. They didn't realize what had happened until test day, Fallon said.

But when a union representative approached chief HISD attorney Elneita Hutchins-Taylor and offered to have the teacher give a statement in return for immunity, Hutchins-Taylor declined, Fallon said.

"They wouldn't give us a guarantee for the whistleblower," she said. "As far as I know, nothing was done."

Hutchins-Taylor did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday. HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said district officials would not discuss the ongoing investigation.

Key, in northeast Houston, recently received an "acceptable" state rating on the strength of last year's passing rates on the test. The school, where 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, was one of 21 HISD campuses tagged as "low-performing" the last time the state rated schools in 2002.

Allegations elsewhere
HISD administrators have been accused in another case of not taking teachers' allegations of cheating seriously. Former Wesley Elementary teacher Donna Garner voiced concerns about cheating at her school during a school board meeting in 2003. District officials initiated an investigation at the time but failed to follow through until November, when Hutchins-Taylor suggested hiring an outside law firm to investigate.

On Thursday, Saavedra acknowledged the district dropped the ball on the Wesley investigation but stopped short of blaming his predecessor, recently retired Superintendent Kaye Stripling.

"It's unacceptable that we have not had quick responses," Saavedra said. "This thing should have been investigated a long time ago."

Saavedra has vowed to root out potential cheating on standardized tests, in part by protecting teachers who come forward with information.

One proposal is to set up a special cheating hotline to operate during testing. Reports from that hotline would go directly to the inspector general.

Fallon has endorsed Saavedra's plan for addressing the allegations and said she believes it will encourage more teachers to report wrongdoing.

Obligation to speak up
Even without the promise of protection, the Key teacher still had a duty to report her suspicions, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. The teacher could have notified the TEA directly but still would have been required to give her name, Rat-cliffe said.

"Any person who fails to report such a violation may be penalized," Ratcliffe said. Those penalties could include the suspension or revocation of the teacher's certification, she said.

Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley has scheduled a Monday press conference to discuss the cheating allegations and possible improvements for the state's test security system.


KHOU-Channel 11 contributed information for the origination of this report.

jason.spencer@chron.com

HoustonChronicle.com -- http://www.HoustonChronicle.com | Section: Local & State
This article is: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/metropolitan

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