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by    Fri, May 26, 2006, 04:03 PM

About one in 12 Texas schools appear to have had suspicious student test scores on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test according to a report commissioned by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Critics are also calling into question the validity of TAKS as a high-stakes testing tool in measuring student achievement.

According to the report conducted by Caveon Test Security, testing irregularities may have occurred in 8.9 percent of public schools in Texas .

Questions revolving around students cheating on the TAKS test is nothing new. Last year the Dallas Morning News published an expose on alleged TAKS cheating within a school district on Dallas ' south side. Nearly every student at the poor-performing Wilmer Elementary School received a perfect score on the TAKS exam.

The TEA commissioned Caveon to look into testing irregularities for the Spring 2005 TAKS test. The report "identified several types of statistical inconsistencies which indicate that testing irregularities may have occurred." Caveon, however, states that the statistical inconsistencies "represent a very small fraction of all TAKS 2005 test results."

Here's what they found:

* In 609 of the 7,112 public schools throughout Texas , statistical inconsistencies were found in the TAKS test results, representing 1% (702 of 73,793) of classrooms throughout Texas .

* A greater proportion of statistical inconsistencies were found in the Math and Science tests than the Reading and Social Studies tests.

* Very similar test responses between student tests was cited as the largest contributor to the statistical inconsistencies found on the TAKS tests. According to Caveon, testing irregularities may happen when students copy answers from each other, when teachers erase and modify answers in blocks so the same set of answers appear across multiple answer sheets, or when students study together in pairs or groups.

Extreme example of cheating

One of the most extreme examples cited by Caveon – albeit an isolated incident – occurred in an 11 th grade math class where 100 percent of the 91 students passed the test. The state average passing rate is 81 percent. Every single test examined in the class had some form of anomaly.

* 98 percent of the tests had very similar answers, when statistically only 6 percent should have shown similarities.

* 55 percent of the tests were labeled "aberrant." A test can be labeled aberrant when the student is able to answer difficult questions correctly, but is unable to answer the easy questions correctly. The average rate of aberrance on the TAKS test is only 4 percent.

* 49 percent of the students in this 11 th grade math class also posted unusually high gains in their test scores, when compared to last year's scores. The statewide average for very high gains in test scores is only 5 percent.

The TEA issued a response to the report cautioning that Caveon's finding of statistical irregularities at 8.6 percent of schools does not mean that the report found testing irregularities in 8.6 percent of schools. The report "cannot be taken as evidence of the percent of testing irregularities occurring during the spring 2005 administration." Their point being that a correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Nonetheless, the Caveon report noted that it took a very conservative approach in performing its analysis so that it is reasonable to infer that testing irregularities may be a likely reason for the statistical anomalies. Caveon recommended that TEA investigate each incident to determine if actual cheating occurred.

The TEA also emphasized that according to the report, the statistical irregularities found within the TAKS 2005 test results were not evidence of a widespread phenomenon but that it "cannot afford to dismiss the findings either."

"TEA takes seriously the security of the state assessment program and needs to identify a reasonable approach to following up on the Caveon findings given resources available for this effort," wrote the agency.

Caveon recommended that the TEA increase its monitoring efforts during administration of TAKS. However according to TEA, "this is not a practicable suggestion for limited staff resources, given the number of campuses and districts in a state the size of Texas ."

The TEA's response to the findings of the Caveon report didn't sit well with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell who held a news conference May 24 on the subject. "Cheating on the TAKS test is unacceptable. Anything short of a serious investigation is equally unacceptable," Bell said.

According to TEA, its Security Task Force in the Student Assessment Division will use the Caveon report and compare it to its own irregularity reports from the spring 2005 TAKS test to "determine if there is supporting evidence of testing irregularities."

Are TAKS scores relevant?

Student TAKS scores are up in most grades this year according to the Texas Education Agency which recently released the Spring 2006 test results.

Highlights of the statewide findings released this week by the TEA:

* 94 percent of 11 th grade students passed the social studies portion of the TAKS test.

* 90 percent of seventh graders passed the writing exam

* 90 percent of fourth graders passed the Spanish version of the writing exam.

Are kids are really smart or is it really easy to pass the TAKS test?

What must be taken into account is the fact that on some on the tests the bar is set so low, it is very difficult to for students to fail. For example, the 94 percent of eleventh grade students who passed the social studies portion of the TAKS exam needed to answer only half of the questions correctly in order to pass. Seventh graders needed only 59 percent to pass the writing test and fourth graders taking the Spanish writing exam needed only 56 percent to pass.

According to testing expert Don McLaughlin, the problem with many standardized tests is that some states set the passing standard too low. McLaughlin conducted research for the National Center for Education Statistics to compare state-designed tests to the federally administered test, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He found that state "achievement standards vary haphazardly from state to state…"

In fact, McLaughlin found that Texas ranks near the bottom in 4 th grade reading standards, second only to Mississippi . Only Mississippi 's 4 th grade reading exam is easier than Texas ' TAKS test.

In other words, a student may pass the Texas 4 th grade reading TAKS test with flying colors where the standards are much lower, but the same students may fail miserably if he took the test in Massachusetts where the standards are much higher.

In a similar study, researchers Paul Peterson and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research gave the TAKS 4 th grade reading test an F. Peterson and Hess graded the states based on how much easier it was to be labeled "proficient" on a state assessment test as compared to the NAEP.

On the positive side, Peterson and Hess noted that Texas was among the handful of states that "significantly boosted their proficiency standards relative to NAEP" over the past two years. Texas overall grade improved from an F in 2003 to a D+ in 2005.

The higher grade may be due in part to the State Board of Education's phase-in approach that moves the passing standard from a lower standard in the first year of the TAKS test to subsequent higher standards each year thereafter.

Why cheat on an easy test?

Even though the passing standards on the TAKS test are low compared to other states, Texas public schools are held to certain standard accountability measures which, in part, depend upon the success or failure rate of students taking the TAKS. Low-performing schools, although rare, can be shut down if a high percentage of their students do not pass the TAKS year after year.

It may be that the high-stakes nature of state assessment tests can create an incentive for mischief.

"Tests can be very useful to teachers, parents, and students when they identify areas in which teaching and learning should be concentrated, but when they are used to guide instruction, with high stakes for teachers and school administrators, they become an enemy of schools," McLaughlin wrote in an essay on his website. "Let's have tests and test scores that are meaningful to teachers and parents, and drop the use of reporting percentages of students achieving standards as a way to identify schools as 'bad.'"

Although the Caveon report did not identify the 609 schools which were found to have statistical anomalies in their TAKS test results, it did note that many of problems were found within individual classrooms, as opposed to district wide.

In some cases the incentive to get students to pass the TAKS test is so great that some schools have resorted to free giveaways as a reward for passing the TAKS. This week the J.R. Harris Elementary School in concert with the Harris County Republican Party announced that it is giving away 300 new bikes to any student who passes the TAKS.

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by Tom Pauken    Fri, May 26, 2006, 12:04 PM

One of the worst kept secrets in Washington, D.C. is that Treasury Secretary John Snow is on his way out of the Bush Administration.  Rumors have been flying for months that the Administration has been trying to recruit a prominent Wall St. executive to replace Mr. Snow, but that there haven't been any takers.  Now, the Washington Post is reporting that Snow "has informed the White House that he will resign in the coming days" from his Cabinet position.  The Post mentions a number of possible replacements including  Don Evans, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Ambassador David Mulford, and former economic advisor to the President Stephen Friedman.  The article notes that former Commerce Secretary and fellow Texan Don Evans "will accompany the Bushes to Camp David today."  The selection of Evans would put at Treasury a man who has been a close friend of the President's since their Midland, Texas days together as young oilmen.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, a protege of James Baker, had hoped to get the job.  But, it appears that he is no longer in consideration for the post as reports have him angling for a job on Wall St. and planning to resign soon from the State Department. 

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by Scott Bennett    Fri, May 26, 2006, 11:38 AM

A just released Gallup Poll asks what is “morally acceptable.” Interesting results with the number representing the percentage of those who found the activity morally acceptable: Death penalty 71%; divorce 67%; stem cell research 61%; medical testing on animals 61%; gambling 60%; pre-marital sex 59%; doctor assisted suicide 51% (versus 41%); homosexual relations 44% (versus 51%); abortion 43% (versus 44%); animal cloning 29%; suicide 15%; human cloning 8%; Polygamy 5%; an extramarital affair 4%. There are certainly a lot of interesting future political battles contained in these numbers.

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by Scott Bennett    Fri, May 26, 2006, 11:19 AM

There are reports of extensive gun fire on Capitol Hill in Washington DC this morning.  A blackberry message has been sent by Capitol Hill Police telling staffers to go to interior offices.  Ambulances are arriving.

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by Scott Bennett    Fri, May 26, 2006, 11:06 AM

Feel the urge to take your old muscle car out and open er up.  Head to West Texas pardner.  The Texas Transportation Commission has just raised the speed limit on Interstate highways 10 and 20 in far West Texas to "80."  That is the highest limit in the nation.  Many safety advocates believe that people already drive in excess of 80 and that the new limit is an invitation to drive 90 or more.  Ya think?

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by Scott Bennett    Fri, May 26, 2006, 10:58 AM

road.jpgAAA tells us that 3.5 million Texans will hit the road this Memorial Day weekend. That is up 2.6% over last year which is surprising given that gas prices are up over 30% since last year and in some areas are still near $3. Nationwide the number of road warriors will be 37.6 million and that too is up but only by 1%.

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by Tom Pauken    Fri, May 26, 2006, 08:53 AM

Our resident economist Carl Pallegrini brings this information to our attention about China's increased demand for oil, fueled by its rapid economic growth.  Xinhua reports from Beijing that in 2005 "China imported 136 million tons of oil, accounting for 42.9 percent of the country's total oil consumption."  Even more significant were these figures on energy consumption:  "China's energy consumption per unit of GDP was 3.36 times greater than the world average in 2004, four times that of the United States, and nearly eight times that of Japan, Britain, Germany and France."

There simply isn't enough supply of energy to match the increasing demand from China at previous price levels.  This problem is exacerbated by China's subsidizing the domestic price of fuel.  That gap between international oil prices and domestic prices is starting to narrow which may have a positive effect of slowing down demand. 

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by Scott Bennett    Thu, May 25, 2006, 10:18 PM

One potential issue for the fall gubernatorial campaign may be the state’s efforts to privatize large sections of its Food Stamp and Medicaid programs. The Republican legislative leadership has touted privatization and streamlining as the way to save tens of millions of dollars. But the program has become mired in the apparent inability of the state’s contractor, Bermuda based Accenture, LLP to deliver as promised.

Today a group of Democratic Congressmen pronounced the project a failure and sent a letter to Texas Health and Human Services Director Albert Hawkins demanding that HHS to pull the plug on the plan. The group asserts that needy Texans legally entitled to benefits have been denied their benefits and others have been illegally dropped from the program.

Last year HHS signed an $899 million contract with Accenture to develop and operate an enrollment program that would consolidate various state aid programs. To date Accenture has been paid $91 million, but Hawkins recently denied a $50 million payment asserting that the company had failed to do its job. Phone calls today to Accenture offices have gone unreturned.

A Blog titled “Ramblings of an HHS Employee Amid Chaos” today posted a May 15th email from the chief clerk of the House Committee on Social Services Annie Landmann to HHC Commissioner Anne Heilgenstein expressing concern over the conduct and competence of HHC employees toward “clients.”

HHC employees, many of whom will lose their jobs through the reorganization, have been notably unsupportive of the plan. Gov. Perry has not addressed the continuing problems directly but says he supports privatization in general. Carol Strayhorn says that the agency “is in total chaos” and that she is in the process of conducting an overall audit.

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by Brian Bodine    Thu, May 25, 2006, 09:39 PM

As the Senate gets closer to passing its version of immigration reform legislation this week, legislators in the House are preparing for the inevitable compromise that will have to be reached between the two chambers.

Congressional candidates are watching the events closely.

One Texas Democrat running for Congress says that he is tired of hearing the word “amnesty”, calling it an offensive concept that is used to frequently. Will Pryor, who is running against Rep. Pete Sessions for the District 32 seat in Texas, told the DallasBlog that he prefers for people to  quit using the word “amnesty” to refer to things that are not really amnesty

“Any of these compromise versions are just different means of addressing how we deal with the population of immigrants,” said Pryor, when asked about his views on the legislation being worked out in the U.S. Senate. “What we had in 86’ was closer to amnesty than what we have now.”

Among the most controversial parts of immigration legislation running through the Senate are provisions that would allow immigrants living in the U.S. for five years or more to stay in the U.S. and work for six years while seeking legal residency. This version of legislation, which is supported by President Bush, has been criticized as being nothing more than amnesty. It appears to be headed for final passage in the Senate.

An alternative proposal pushed by Senator Dianne Feinstein would allow 12 million illegal immigrants in the country to stay and eventually attain American citizenship.

Pryor said that he supports the guest worker provisions of the Senate bill that is nearing vote, but he emphasized that citizenship be earned.

Pryor also said that he has misgivings about the President’s proposal to use the National Guard at the U.S.-Mexico border. “My concern is that our National Guard is stretched unbelievable thin and that we have to address a short-term political problem,” said Pryor. Pryor added that, while he supports the President’s proposal to use more high technology at the border and increase the number of border patrol, he did not think that the permanent placement of the National Guard at the border is the appropriate use of the force.

“The purpose of the National Guard has never been to address problems like this,” said Pryor. Pryor added that he would find the use of the National Guard less objectionable if it was meant as a temporary, “stop-gap” measure and not something more permanent.

According to, under the President’s plan, most troops stationed at the border will spend three weeks there. The plan calls for up to 6,000 troops being stationed at the border during the first year, and up to 3,000 troops in the second year.

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by Trey Garrison    Thu, May 25, 2006, 07:41 PM

This is shaping up as a bad day for the Dallas Police Department. Two more officers, Dallas Police Officers Edward Saenz and Michael Contreras, have been placed on administrative leave for alleged oppression under color of law on May 21.

The allegation is that Contreras, while off duty, became involved in a personal conflict with a civilian on a date sometime before the alleged incident on May 21. Then he and Saenz, while on duty on the 21st, left the Southwest Patrol Division and went to the citizen’s place of employment for the sole purpose of detaining him.

Officers allegedly detained and released the civilian a short time later. Saenz was hired in September 1997 and Contreras was hired in August 2003.

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