Monday, January 10, 2005

Texas Working Up Plan to Catch TAKS Cheaters

Associated Press

AUSTIN - Texas education officials announced today they will hire an expert to review security measures on the state's standardized test but defended the system against evidence of cheating at hundreds of schools across the state.

"We have zero tolerance for cheating," Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said, applauding state efforts to maintain test integrity. She said most Texas educators would not tolerate cheating because "their personal code of honor would not permit it."

A recent investigation by The Dallas Morning News found strong evidence that teachers and principals at nearly 400 schools helped students cheat on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The newspaper identified schools whose test scores swung wildly from poor to stellar.

"Don't rush to judgment just because scores on a test increase rapidly," Neeley said. "That result is more likely to mean it's time to celebrate, rather and investigate."

The Houston and Dallas school districts, which are investigating scoring irregularities at dozens of their schools, last week pledged to send monitors to classrooms on test day. Houston plans to create an investigative department.

Some of the schools under investigation are among the state's most lauded, including Wesley Elementary, which was held up by President Bush and many conservatives as a model for urban schools nationwide. The district hired a law firm last year to investigate Wesley and two neighboring elementary schools.

About 3 million Texas students in grades 3-11 are tested each year. Each student takes up to four subject-area tests that contain 30 to 60 questions each.

Neeley said the schools identified in the newspaper investigation represent only a fraction of the students tested, and that no problems have been reported at about 7,500 campuses.

She said the state already has strict guidelines to prevent cheating.

Each test booklet is sealed and kept in a secure location, and each has unique security numbers for tracking. Each person who handles a test takes an oath to uphold test security and confidentiality.

Cheating could result in educators losing certification. Tampering with test results is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

"It should be extremely harsh," Neeley said. "Texas educators understand that cheating on the test can be a career-ending move."

No immediate time frame has been set for hiring the review expert. Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said ideally that person would have recommendations in time for the 2005-06 school year.

TEA also announced it would build a monitoring system to better track how districts resolve complaints of cheating or irregularities.

In most cases, TEA asks districts to investigate complaints. Neeley said most complaints are minor and she is confident districts would properly investigate their schools.

The cheating allegations raise questions about the Texas accountability system and the federal No Child Left Behind law. Both attempt to measure the quality of public schools and punish those that don't meet standards.

Randall Iglehart, president of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, questioned whether teachers are pressured to cheat in an environment where job security depends on standardized test results.

"The TAKS test is an extremely high-stakes exam," Iglehart said. "So much so that it appears some are willing to break the rules to benefit themselves, their students, their schools, school districts and the state."

Dallas interim Superintendent Larry Groppel said students and teachers have made great gains under the current system.

"We don't want to take away what incredible gains our teachers and students have accomplished by having a small number of irregularities taint them," Groppel said.

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