POOR SCHOOLS TAKS SURGE RAISES
Dallas Morning News
December 19, 2004
by Joshua Benton and Holly K.
A Dallas Morning News data analysis has uncovered strong evidence of organized,
educator-led cheating on the TAKS test in dozens of Texas schools and
suspicious scores in hundreds more.
The analysis found a poor urban school where third- and fifth-graders are among
the state's weakest readers but the fourth-graders beat out the state's most
elite schools. That's despite the fact that many of its students have trouble
It found a desperately impoverished school where the fourth-graders have trouble
adding and subtracting but nearly all the fifth-graders got perfect scores on
the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
And it found schools where in one year's time if the scores are to be believed
children devolved from top students to barely being able to read.
The News' findings have led to cheating inquiries in three Texas school
districts, including the state's two largest, Dallas and Houston. One of the
schools under investigation is a National Blue Ribbon School that a year ago was
touted by federal officials as an example of top academic achievement.
"It's very disturbing that this is happening," Dallas schools spokesman Donald
Claxton said of data showing unusual swings in test scores at Harrell Budd
Elementary. "There will be a broad-scoped, complete investigation. If there's
cheating going on, we want to stop it."
The investigation raises serious questions about the ability of the state's
accountability system to reliably measure how schools are performing. The Texas
system provided the model for No Child Left Behind, the federal law that
measures the quality of all U.S. public schools and punishes those that don't
"My sense is that we're seeing a change in culture," said Jim Impara, a former
state assessment director in Florida and Oregon. "When you have a system where
test scores have real impact on teachers' lives, you're more likely to see
teachers willing to cheat."
The News' analysis is based on examining scale scores the little-known numbers
behind the passing rates that typically get public attention. The investigation
searched for schools with unusual gaps in performance between grades or
subjects. Research has shown that schools that are weak in one subject or one
grade are typically weak in others.
Take Sanderson Elementary, a school in a poor Houston area.
In 2003, after years of mediocre performance, it reached what has traditionally
been the pinnacle for American schools: The U.S. Department of Education named
Sanderson a Blue Ribbon School because of rapid improvement in its test scores.
But the News' analysis raises questions about the validity of Sanderson's TAKS
performance, particularly in fifth-grade math.
Sanderson's fourth-graders scored extremely poorly on the math TAKS test. Their
average scale score was so low that it ranked Sanderson in the bottom 2 percent
of the state: No. 3,173 out of 3,227 schools.
That's roughly what might be expected from a school where 98 percent of the
student body is poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunches. Hundreds of
research studies have found that student poverty is the single most important
factor in student academic achievement.
But Sanderson's fifth-graders had astonishing success on the math test. They had
the highest scale scores of any school in Texas, beating every magnet school,
every wealthy suburban school and every high-performing school in the state.
Sanderson didn't just finish No. 1. No other school in the state was even close.
In scale-score points, the distance between Sanderson and the No. 2 school was
as large as the gap between No. 2 and No. 116. More than 90 percent of
Sanderson's fifth-graders got perfect or near-perfect scores.
Tom Haladyna, a professor at Arizona State University who studies cheating, said
that level of improvement between grades is extremely unusual. He compared it to
a weekend duffer beating Tiger Woods by 10 strokes, or a scrub softball player
hitting 80 home runs in the major leagues: theoretically conceivable but
"They're using educational steroids," he said.
Those "steroids" were apparently used only on the TAKS test. Just eight weeks
before Sanderson fifth-graders took the TAKS, they took a different standardized
test, the Stanford Achievement Test. They didn't fare well, finishing below the
Sanderson's principal, James Metoyer, directed all questions about scores to
district officials. Houston Superintendent Abe Saavedra issued a written
statement to The News.
"At HISD, our credibility and integrity must remain absolutely beyond question,"
Dr. Saavedra wrote last week. "For that reason, I have asked for a full and
thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the math scores of this
one group of fifth graders."
Dr. Saavedra said the district had reassigned two Sanderson teachers to "other
duties" while the district and the state investigate the school's test scores.
He also said Mr. Metoyer, the principal, had asked to be reassigned "in order to
protect the credibility and the integrity of this investigation."
Dallas school officials reacted similarly when The News informed them last week
of problems with the test scores at Harrell Budd Elementary in southern Dallas.
At Budd, the questions involve the fourth grade, where results in both reading
and math were questionable. In the third grade, Budd's students finished in the
bottom 4 percent of the state in reading. Not unusual, considering nearly 95
percent of its students are poor and more than 40 percent have limited English
But Budd's fourth-graders were worldbeaters. In reading, they had the
second-highest scores in the state, beating schools in Highland Park, Plano and
every other high-wealth district. The only school to finish ahead of them was a
Houston magnet school for gifted children. Budd's fourth-graders fared almost as
well in math, ranking in the top 2 percent of Texas.
After The News reported its findings to district officials, the district
launched a cheating investigation at Budd. "We'll find out how extensive the
problems are," said Mr. Claxton, the district spokesman. "We're trying to get to
the bottom of it."
More than 200 schools
The score swings at Sanderson and Budd were the two most extreme of any of the
7,700 Texas schools whose scores The News analyzed. But they weren't the only
More than 200 schools had large, unexplained score gaps between grades or
between tests. In statisticians' lingo, these schools had at least one average
scale score that was more than three standard deviations away from what would be
predicted based on their scores in other grades or on other tests.
In some cases, there may be legitimate explanations for such gaps. School
attendance boundaries could have changed dramatically. Or a new public housing
development might have radically changed the composition of a school's student
But researchers said that large differences between tests are generally signs of
"If you see big swings in those numbers, I think we should raise our eyebrows
and say this is very, very unusual," Dr. Haladyna said.
The schools most likely to make the list are high-poverty, urban schools, which
often feel the strongest pressure to raise scores.
Houston had the most schools with large gaps: 25 out of the district's 307
schools. Dallas had 21, out of 219 total. Fort Worth had six schools on the
list, and no other Texas district had more than three.
Using a stricter standard four standard deviations from predictions 41
schools have suspect scores.
The most common pattern involved the third-grade reading TAKS test. Students
generally must pass the test to be promoted to fourth grade. That puts more
pressure on teachers.
• Houston's Gallegos Elementary. In 2003, Gallegos' third-graders finished in
the bottom 8 percent of the state. In 2004, third-graders zoomed up to the top 2
percent. But the school's reading scores in other grades remained weak.
• Dallas' Margaret Henderson Elementary, one of Texas' worst schools. It was one
of only two North Texas schools to earn the state's "low performing" label from
2001 to 2003. But in 2004, Henderson's third-graders leapt to the state's 73rd
percentile in reading. Fourth- and fifth-graders remained in the bottom 5
percent of the state.
The News began its data analysis in October, when questions were raised about
the validity of test scores in the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins school district.
The analysis found strong evidence of cheating at Wilmer Elementary, a
long-underachieving school that rocketed to the best third-grade reading scores
in the state. Since the analysis was published, several teachers and students
have supported the allegations of TAKS cheating, and the Texas Education Agency
has launched an investigation.
In Brownsville, Garza Elementary has scoring patterns similar to Wilmer's. Its
fourth- and fifth-graders did poorly on the state's English-language reading
test in 2004. Fourth-graders finished in the bottom 11 percent of the state.
Fifth-graders were worse: in the bottom 4 percent, 3,336th out of 3,453 schools
Like Wilmer, Garza teaches the very poor; only three of its 810 students did not
qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. More than three-quarters of
its students are considered "limited English proficient" under state
And, like Wilmer, Garza's students finished in the state's top 2 percent on the
third-grade reading test. Almost two-thirds of its students got perfect or
Even Brownsville's superintendent thought Garza's third-grade scores were
unusual. "I thought, 'That's too good,' " Michael Zolkowski said.
TEA officials are investigating. But district officials have said the inquiry is
limited to questions about one or two students' answer sheets, which would not
explain the massive score swing.
Researchers differ on how common it is for teachers to cheat. But most agree it
is more common than officials like to acknowledge.
John Fremer, who led the team that developed the new version of the SAT,
estimates that between 1 and 2 percent of teachers cheat on their students'
behalf on standardized tests. Because those classrooms are spread out among
schools, he estimates cheating skews the scores of 3 to 5 percent of schools.
A recent Harvard study of testing in Chicago schools found organized,
educator-led cheating in about 4 percent of classrooms, 6 percent when schools
with low scores faced consequences.
In an anonymous survey of Arizona teachers by Dr. Haladyna, 11 percent said they
improperly helped students on 1991 state tests.
Dr. Impara said that when he started in the testing business in the 1960s,
cheating on standardized tests was barely a concern.
"There were almost no stakes attached," said Dr. Impara, who with Dr. Fremer has
formed a private test-security company. "The test was intended to provide
information on student performance."
Changes in Texas
That started to change in Texas in the early 1990s, with the birth of the
state's accountability system. School passing rates were made public and
broadcast widely. Schools earned ratings based on their passing rates. The idea:
shaming low-performing schools publicly would encourage them to get their
Now, in many districts, scores are the key factor in evaluating the performance
of superintendents, principals and teachers.
Dr. Haladyna said schools should be able to explain wide gaps in scores if they
are not cheating.
"Every time you see one of these schools," he said, "you have the right to ask
the question, 'How did you do it?' There has to be a program, a method that's
producing these results. 'We just tried harder' is not an acceptable answer."
"We just worked real hard" was the explanation given by Geraldine Hobson,
principal of Wilmer Elementary, when she was asked last month about Wilmer's
astounding third-grade scores. She resigned less than two weeks later.
The News' method of looking for unusual test scores does not catch all cheaters.
It does not, for instance, detect schools that cheat consistently across
multiple grades and multiple subjects.
It also doesn't catch more subtle cheaters. A teacher who gives students a few
correct answers on test day could raise her students' scores enough for them to
pass, but not enough for a huge score increase that might draw attention.
"You're catching the dumb cheaters," Dr. Haladyna said of the analysis. "The
smart cheaters you're not going to be able to detect."