Andrew Kreighbaum
›› Texas School Districts TAKS Participation

›› Texas Education Agency: STAAR system minimizes issues revealed with previous testing regime

In 2006, Swift & Co. Packing in the Panhandle town of Cactus, Texas, became a target of federal immigration raids — raids that would have a serious ripple effect on the area's education system.
School officials were left with mostly Hispanic students who lost one or both parents to deportation and then with the challenge of educating the children of Burmese immigrants who moved in to fill the meat-packing jobs.
The district adjusted policies for those students in part by tying grade promotion to their performance on ninth-grade state standardized tests. The requirement was designed to make sure students were prepared for upper grade levels.
And from 2010 to 2012, it meant more than 23 percent of graduating students left with no record of taking the 10th-grade Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test that determined federal accountability ratings.
"I don't think there was ever anything to do except give the kids a fair chance," said Dumas interim Superintendent Larry Appel.
The El Paso Independent School District under former Superintendent Lorenzo García used a number of policies involving student retention and credit recovery to improperly manipulate the 10th-grade testing population and boost federal accountability ratings.
García will soon complete a federal prison sentence for his guilty plea to defrauding state and federal accountability measures by controlling which students were tested. The FBI continues its investigation into other EPISD employees who might have been involved in a cheating scheme. Texas Education Commissioner Michael L. Williams removed the EPISD's elected school board for its failure to prevent the cheating scandal.
At the heart of the EPISD cheating scheme was an effort to control which students took the 10th-grade TAKS that would be used by the U.S. Department of Education to determine whether schools and districts met the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Investigations by the El Paso Times and the FBI showed district employees altered transcripts to reclassify 10th-graders as ninth-graders, placed international transfer students in ninth grade regardless of how many credits they had accumulated and allowed thousands of students to take so-called "minimesters" in which they quickly piled up credits that allowed them to jump from ninth to 11th or 12th grade.
In all, about 10.6 percent of EPISD graduates between 2010 and 2012 got their diplomas with no record of ever being tested for federal accountability purposes, according to Texas Education Agency analyzed by the El Paso Times.
But in that same time, 19 Texas school districts had higher percentages of students graduating with no record of being tested for federal accountability compliance, topped by Dumas' 23 percent. Those school districts were concentrated along the Mexican border and in the Texas Panhandle, but also included Bryan ISD between Austin and Houston and Waller ISD near Houston, the Times analysis showed.
Few school districts have 100 percent participation rates on standardized tests, and records could be absent for reasons including poor record keeping, a withdrawal from school prior to the spring test administration or legitimate district retention policies.
But the numbers bring into question federal accountability results for multiple districts that didn't test many of their most struggling students. And the student test participation remains a concern for federal officials who investigated failures to detect cheating at the EPISD.
Across Texas, more than 42,000 students — about one in every 20 graduates — got diplomas between 2010 and 2012 without taking the 10th-grade test for federal accountability. That figure does not include students who transferred to Texas from other states after beginning high school.
There is no indication in the data — provided to the El Paso Times through a public information request — that other districts were engaging in the sort of orchestrated cheating that took place in the EPISD.
But the exclusion of tens of thousands of students from accountability testing could have affected federal accountability ratings for districts and campuses across Texas. And experts say the numbers and the state's explanations point to a problem with how much education policy is based on flawed data.
District policies
At several districts, policies affecting student grade retention, grade classification of foreign transfer students, and accelerated instruction impacted participation on the 10th-grade test.
At Dumas, more than an hour north of Amarillo, almost a quarter of graduates over three years had no record of taking a 10th-grade TAKS test. That's largely because until 2012, a district policy tied promotion of ninth-grade students to their performance on state standardized tests.
Those who flunked the ninth-grade TAKS test were retained in the ninth grade the following year, regardless of whether they had accumulated enough credits to be classified as 10th-graders.
After a second year of high school, students often accumulated enough credits to move straight to 11th grade, bypassing the 10th grade test that determined federal accountability ratings.
Dumas interim superintendent Appel, who returned to the district earlier this year after several years in retirement, wasn't at the helm of district when the policy was implemented. But he said it wasn't added to game the system or improperly influence accountability ratings.
"It was never a philosophy or policy within the district to circumvent anything, but more of a policy to say, if we have kids who are failing grade nine, then let's leave them in grade nine and they can repeat some of those classes that they failed," he said.
Passing standardized tests wasn't a promotion requirement for students in higher grades. Students were required to pass the 11th-grade TAKS to receive a high school diploma, but those test results weren't used for federal accountability ratings.
The 10th-grade test was used for federal accountability measures, but was not a graduation requirement.
"I guess the rationale back then might have been at some point you run out of time for these kids because they start taking the other tests in grade 11 to satisfy graduation requirements," Appel said. "That's my assumption on that part."
Appel said the Texas Association of School Boards, which advises local school districts on policy, never raised any concerns regarding that policy to Dumas.
A spokeswoman for TASB said no staff members were able to comment on the policy at Dumas specifically, or in general terms on policies tying promotion to performance on state assessments.
Data concerns
Scholars who study school accountability say it's hard to draw conclusions from aggregate numbers without knowing the individual story at each school district. Some of those students might have no testing records because of data matching errors or because they were retained in ninth grade for their second year of high school and promoted to 11th grade in their third year.
Others might have withdrawn from school prior to the spring TAKS administration — the period measured in the TEA data — or simply were not tested.
"You can see numbers, but you won't know what caused those numbers unless you know anecdotally," said Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University.
But he said the high number of students who apparently weren't tested does raise questions about conclusions drawn from test results. Potential efforts to influence the student testing population were scrutinized in a federal Department of Education audit report last year that examined the failings of the TEA to detect cheating.
The audit report found a district could avoid counting students as 10th-graders for test-taking purposes so low-performing students would never take the TAKS test.
"Because the (districts) would classify them as ninth-grade students for their entire second year of high school, these students would not be given the 10th grade TAKS at any time during their second year of high school," the report read. "By the beginning of their third year of high school, the students might have earned enough credits for the (district) to classify them as 11th grade students. The students never would have been classified as 10th grade students at any time during high school and never would have been given the 10th grade TAKS test that TEA used to determine (adequate yearly progress)."
At the Weslaco Independent School District, more than 12 percent of graduates over those three years, or nearly 330 students, left with no record of a 10th-grade test. Administrators cited policies designed to help students who struggled in the ninth grade to help them quickly make up ground quickly.
"At the high school level, we don't go by promotion or retention, we go by credits," said Claudia Alanis, assessment coordinator at the district. "Either in the summer (after ninth grade) or during the year they got enough credits and they leap-frogged into the 11th grade."
At least 120 students in Weslaco never took the TAKS under those circumstances. For those "repeating freshmen," the district's focus became making sure they graduated in four years — whether or not they took a 10th-grade TAKS test. Alanis said data indicates students who don't graduate high school in four years are much more likely to drop out.
She said the district also serves a high number of at-risk and economically disadvantaged students who are more likely to struggle in the classroom.
"When you consider that, you're going to think we're going to have a lot of second-year ninth-graders, and basically that's what we found," she said.
English learners
Most of the districts with the highest proportion of graduates who left without any record of a 10th-grade TAKS test had high numbers of Hispanic students and English-language learners.
In the three years of data analyzed by the Times, just over 5 percent of Texas high school graduates had no record of a math or English 10th-grade TAKS test. But for students who had ever been classified as English-language learners, that number rose to about 15 percent statewide.
At the Brownsville Independent School District, more than 11 percent of graduates between 2010 and 2012 had no record of the 10th-grade TAKS test. Pam Van Ravensway, Brownsville's administrator of assessment, research and evaluation, said the district — just across the border from Matamoros — serves a significant number of foreign transfer students each year.
She said in that context, the district's numbers actually sounded positive.
"Those numbers don't look too bad to me," she said. "They look pretty good."
In some cases, Brownsville students may fail to qualify for promotion after their ninth-grade year but attend summer school courses and take accelerated courses the following fall to qualify for 11th grade.
Ravensway also noted the high number of students who often come to the district from across the border in Mexico before each school year.
"We may start them in ninth grade, but once those credits come back from the UT System, we promote them to whatever level they're supposed to be at," she said. "That's why we do reclassification."
Such reclassification policies at Socorro Independent School District received scrutiny last fall after an external audit report found the district inappropriately retained immigrant transfer students in ninth grade. A separate investigation commissioned by the school district later found no intentional wrongdoing by any administrators at Socorro.
But it's unlikely that EPISD was the only school district that has manipulated testing populations to influence test scores, said Greg Cizek, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Education.
"I wouldn't be surprised that there are a large number of campuses where the same thing was going on," he said.
_district scores of August 2013 records as investigations like this which is the result was the demonstrators excluded thousands of students protesting population but what if you are testing positive for the 10% of students at her daughter graduated from 2000 after 2012 with a record of its equity interest" the associate Commissioner for assessment and accountability Hecate said the fact the student to take a temporary test doesn't mean that you have taken is available from ocean potential decisions made at the local level the Texas education agency doesn't have the administrative procedure for monitoring local policy he said local school to have the authority to make those determinations the individuals also points out that will support the ticket status meeting students who were unfortunate reasons such as illness when the test was minister of visitation rights with its data part of the problem with the testing regime is a reliance on imported schedule is highly educational leadership health status of dollars of mortgages years while at the University of Texas at Austin the data is just not good all sorts of problems with it I will make these quick decisions make a lot of important policy decisions based on data that is very imperfect despite those concerns taxes and the federal government continue to move forward with counseling systems can become more s visitor to talk to your local school district will notice an important resources and tools such as good announces total course completion March 5 letter to school leaders education Commissioner Williamson expects to restrict themselves to address any issues with more credits for classification of students of different abilities and sufficient snippet: keeping with tradition of local control by elected school board resolved locally identified issues relating to the requirements for appropriate replacement base compliance will