Cheating Scandal Rocks Texas

K-12 Testing

While President George W. Bush continues to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and take credit for its “successes,” back home in Texas, the NCLB model state, a cheating scandal widens. Reports of widespread, institutionalized cheating are causing some to link an overemphasis on test scores with increasing pressure on administrators and teachers to cheat. Missing from most of the public discussion, however, is a focus on high-stakes testing’s negative impact on the quality of education Texas students receive.


Twenty-three Houston schools are being investigated for possible cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) because of suspect scores on the 2004 exam. An investigation by the Dallas Morning News found unusual test score patterns in nearly 400 schools statewide. In some cases, students made implausible test score gains from one year to the next. Elsewhere, gains that placed a school at the top of the state heap evaporated in one year.


Cheating allegations are also becoming increasingly common around the nation, as schools in every state must increase scores or face NCLB sanctions. Cheating charges have appeared recently in Florida, California, Illinois, Indiana, Delaware, Michigan, New York, Nevada, Maryland, Ohio and South Carolina, among others (see previous Examiners).


At the Wesley Elementary School in Houston, lauded by President Bush for extraordinary score gains, the school principal allegedly reprimanded teachers if they did not help students on the test. One teacher reported that when she gave her students the test and did not help them, the students did not know what to do. The teacher, Donna Garner, said she was then told by the principal that she did not know “how to administer a test the Wesley way,” which another teacher said was to walk around the room and stand behind a student until the correct answer was marked. Teachers in some schools have reported receiving students who were basically illiterate but had scored high on the exam in the previous grade.


In response to the Dallas Morning News investigation, state officials announced they would hire an outsider to upgrade security and construct a tracking system to find test score irregularities that may indicate cheating. This focus on policing, and the resources devoted to such a system, divert resources and attention from classroom improvements. Several other states are also hiring consultants to catch cheaters.


Meanwhile, Texas encourages conditions that induce cheating. For example, Governor Rick Perry seeks to award bonus pay for teachers and administrators on the TAKS scores. District awarded bonuses can reach $60,000, as in the case of Houston Superintendent Abe Saavedra, who has acknowledged there is great pressure to improve results.


Too few observers or policymakers are evaluating how the test-focused environment erodes educational quality for Texas students. As Angela Valenzuela wrote in Leaving Children Behind - How “Texas-style” Accountability Fails Latino Youth, "through collateral effects (such as narrowing curricula and marginalizing students), Texas-style accountability systems rob children of a quality education, fostering their psychic, emotional, and, sometimes, literal physical withdrawal from the schooling process.”