in Houston, Texas
Records used in other states to uncover cheating on tests not open in Texas
Friday, Mar 30, 2012, 10:26AM CST
By Steve Miller
No. 2 pencils

While other states are finding evidence of school test score manipulation, the Texas Education Agency has managed to quash open records requests that would allow the public to investigate such a thing in this state.

In two recent open records requests, the TEA has successfully argued that the information that would make an investigation possible is not a public record.

The issue is what is called erasure data, or the marks on a written test that show signs of amending an answer. (This is a sample of a question on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, test.)

A certain number of wrong-to-right changes is a flag to a trained eye, and metrics and formulas have been developed that can provide a high likelihood that cheating was part of the end result, be it by teachers or students.

Analyzing erasure data led to a scandalous revelation of widespread test cheating in Georgia last year that involved dozens of investigators including a specially appointed team from the governor’s office.

As the Austin American-Statesman points out, erasure data has been cited by both the New York Times and USA Today to find evidence of cheating.

The Statesman story also mentioned the efforts of both a former teacher and a reporter who sought to obtain erasure data in Texas but were refused in similar decisions by the Attorney General’s open records division.

On June 1, the office ruled against the former teacher, as it did six weeks later in another case. It also upheld the TEA’s contention that the erasure data was part of an audit working paper, which under state law may be withheld. TEA confidentiality officer Montgomery Meitler told Texas Watchdog that he provided the AG’s office with “actual audit working papers for a pending audit” in order to make his case.

“The information submitted to the AG’s office would be a representative sample of the data requested,” Meitler said.  “So if you had [asked] for a specific audit all the erasure data, we would have to provide a representative sample.”

Then in August, the Statesman requested erasure data for the school years 2008-2009, 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 provided to the TEA by its contractor, Pearson. Again, the AG’s office received evidence that the TEA was doing an audit of the erasure data and ruled in favor of TEA.

But, "they can't just indefinitely say there is an audit going on and use that as a defense,” said Tom Gregor, an open records lawyer in Houston.

The working papers notion also contradicts statements from a TEA spokeswoman this week, who said that despite a story by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution which showed test scores in Houston and Dallas that were suspiciously high, there would be no investigation.

On Friday, TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the state's erasure data was being used as part of an investigation.

"Sometimes we hear of an irregularity the day of the testing, sometimes it comes two years later," Ratcliffe said, adding that she did not know the status of the investigation based on 2008-2009 data.

The TEA investigated a number of schools in 2005 for test cheating, but the Dallas Morning News subsequently found even more instances in its own independent review. Houston ISD fired several teachers at the time.

The finding came as the TEA insisted that incidents of cheating in the state were rare. In an effort to stem dishonesty in testing, the TEA asked students to sign pledges of honor starting in 2007, among other things.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of No. 2 pencils by flickr user roswellsgirl, used via a Creative Commons license.

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