This remedy doesn't consider the systemic factors that led to all the cheating in the first place. The whole assessment system needs to be reconsidered. -Angela
Expert suggests that the TEA take investigations out of districts' hands and use outsiders
By JASON SPENCER
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Independent experts, not school districts, should be investigating suspicious test scores at Texas schools, a consultant hired by the state education agency recommended in a report made public Wednesday.
The Texas Education Agency commissioned the study by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Greg Cizek earlier this year after a Dallas Morning News report questioned unusual test-score gains at about 400 schools, including several in the Houston Independent School District.
HISD's investigation into two dozen schools found evidence that teachers at four schools helped students cheat on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Evidence of cheating at seven other campuses was inconclusive.
While not mentioning the HISD inquiry specifically, Cizek said some investigations should be handled by outsiders.
School district employees may "lack strong incentives for vigorously and objectively collecting information in the course of the preliminary investigations," the 41-page report said. "Rather than relying as heavily on initial investigations by the (school districts), the TEA should consider developing a 'triage' system that would trigger external, independent review in specified situations to be determined by the TEA."
HISD spokesman Terry Abbott defended the school district's handling of the investigation.
"To my knowledge, HISD is the only school district to have so aggressively investigated, reported publicly on and took strong action regarding testing impropriety," Abbott wrote in an e-mail message.
Cizek, who was paid $12,000 for the study, made more than a dozen recommendations, some of which already have been adopted by the state agency. Commissioner Shirley Neeley has doubled her investigative staff to six employees, and the state's private testing contractor has hired a test security firm to monitor test scores for irregularities.
Cizek complimented some of Texas' test-security practices, especially when it comes to drafting policies and procedures leading up to test time.
"In comparison with other states, Texas is unquestionably at the forefront," he wrote.
The problem with testing in Texas, Cizek said, comes after students fill in their answer sheets.
"(F)ollow-up on reported test security violations does not appear to be timely or well-documented over time," he wrote.
"Analyses that might be conducted to identify inappropriate alteration of student answer documents (so called 'light marks analyses') are performed, although there do not appear to be any well-established procedures for use or interpretation of results," he wrote.
School districts should be notified when their students' answer sheets show unusually high numbers of erasures, Cizek said.
Neeley hasn't committed to some of the more sweeping suggestions, such as sending TEA monitors to oversee testing and more aggressive prosecution of educators.
Six percent of the 1,697 test security-violation reports made to the TEA during the 2003-04 school year were deemed credible enough to be referred to the State Board for Educator Certification.
Nearly a year later, about half of those cases were still pending review, Cizek reported.
"We're still reviewing the report," said TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson. "It's something we don't take lightly."