Texas Education Miracle:

The Houston ISD version — pg. 2

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spacerIf money talks, is it a 'miracle'? (p. 2)

By Jim Trelease, © 2002-2005


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Formula for raising scores: Drop worst from class

enron art 1enron art 2enron art 3   Two months after The Times reported the dropout-pushout hoax, The Washington Post visited the story and added another dimension, this one about the achievement miracle.( When Secretary Paige took over as Houston superintendent, only 26 percent of the city's 10th graders were passing the state math test; the year he departed for Washington, 99 percent were passing it. Miraculous?

   Not quite, suggests The Washington Post. It seems that Paige's association with the Houston-based American Productivity and Quality Center taught him a few things about statistics that would help the district. For example, under Paige it became commonplace for at-risk 9th-graders to be retained in that grade, allowing only the competent to matriculate to 10th — the year when they would take the state math test. After two or more years in 9th grade, those at-risk students were moved up to 12th grade, in effect sidestepping the 10th-grade test. The result is that by 2001, there were 1,160 students in 9th grade and 281 in 10th grade. And 99 percent of those 281 passed the state math test. (For details, see: "Education 'Miracle' Has a Math Problem," by Michael Dobbs, Washington Post Nov. 8, 2003, p 1; online at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14117-2003Nov7.html; also the Houston TV investigative report from KHOU: Report 1 and Report 2.

   All of this might diminish the meaning of "miracle" but it certainly adds new meaning to the term "writing off your losses." Not that such retentions are anything new in football states like Texas. They've been "redshirting" their athletes for years, holding 8th-graders back an extra year to "bulk 'em up" for high school football.

"60 Minutes II" comes to HISD

Kimball 2kimball 1   On Jan. 7, 2004, CBS "60 Minutes II" aired a Dan Rather report on the Houston ISD's woes (worth noting: CBS' coverage appeared 216,000 minutes [5 months] after the print media first reported the situation). Rather's complete report, including an interview with Robert Kimball, can be read in its entirety at 60 Minutes II-Texas. Although Houston ISD officials refused to appear on camera, they did respond off-camera and its press secretary issued a rebuttal to accusations that would come up in the show. That rebuttal can be downloaded as a PDF file at Response. Here is an excerpt from the show itself:


     "60 Minutes II wanted to ask Houston school officials about Kimball’s charges, but they wouldn’t talk on-camera. They said they wouldn't 'get a fair shake.' But they did meet off-camera, and they argued that the audit proved outright fraud only at Sharpstown High.
    At the other schools, they contended, the false statistics were due to 'confusion' about the complex state system for coding students, and sloppy bookkeeping. They conceded, however, that Houston's 'official' 1.5 percent dropout rate was not accurate.
    Those officials also urged 60 Minutes II to get a better picture of the Houston school system on-camera from Rob Mosbacher, a Houston businessman, school supporter and Republican activist.
    'I think the district looks at the challenges it has, and sets high expectations. And that's something that makes all of us very proud. Because they've been making the progress that shows that expectations can be realized,' says Mosbacher.
    60 Minutes II also tried to talk to [Rod] Paige himself, but he declined. His spokesman said the dropout controversy broke after Paige left Houston to become education secretary. And he said the phony statistics at Sharpstown were the work of a few individuals.
    Paige's spokesman suggested that 60 Minutes II talk to Jay Greene, a leading expert on dropouts at the Manhattan Institute. Greene supports the kind of accountability reforms Paige enacted in Houston.
    But this is what Greene said when asked what he thought about Houston's 'official' dropout rates: 'I find that very hard to believe. It is almost certainly not true. I think it's simply implausible. I think a reasonable guess is that almost half of Houston's students do not graduate from high school.'
    Greene also points out that Houston's dropout problem is no worse than that of school systems in many other large American cities: 'I think they are doing about as well as most urban school districts, which is to say not very well … I don’t think they’ve been doing super well.'"

— from 60 Minutes II,
Jan. 7, 2004

   Several weeks later Education Secretary Paige defended his record and pointed to the Houston controversy as just part of the political opposition. "Some people think they can damage the process of national reform and defeat the No Child Left Behind law by striking out at Texas and the Houston Independent School District. They believe they can win by fighting a proxy war here. So they try to devalue the good work of the people of Houston." (Dr. Paige was quoted in a New York Times article, Jan. 28, 2004: "Education Chief Defends Policy and Past," by Diana Jean Schemo. For a more vitriolic quote from Dr. Paige regarding those who oppose NCLB, see Paige and Opponents; see also Paige getting the points.)

What else the State Audit found in Houston

   The state audit of Houston ISD uncovered not only a dropout hoax but also a "college matriculation" hoax of similar proportions.

   As reported by The New York Times ("For Houston Schools, College Claims Exceed Reality," by Diana Jean Schemo, Aug. 28, 2003, p. A12), many Houston high schools reported to the state that as many as 100 percent of their students were planning to attend college when the reality was less than 50 percent were attending.

   The purpose of such inflated figures was described by a former principal:

"...lower level administrators inflated their figures in the hope of attracting the children of active, involved parents. More students also mean more money from the state. On paper, her school claimed that almost all its graduates were headed for college. In fact, the principal said most of them 'couldn't spell college, let alone attend.'"

   Once again, as pressures were applied from above to raise scores, administrators warped the truth in hopes of raising scores: If active affluent parents believe a school is sending 100 percent of its students to college, then they likely would enroll their child in such a high school. The more such children enroll, the higher the school's scores will be. The premise, however, is built on a lie fermented by high stakes' testing.

   One Houston graduate told The Times that since the high schools' false claims did no individual any harm, perhaps it didn't matter. She did add, "But it could mean they lie about a lot more other important things."

Cooking the books with Enron BBQ sauce

hat young woman's comment was certainly prescient. Within a few months, more disturbing news was emanating from Houston ISD, this time involving its failure to accurately report violent crime in its schools.

Under both Texas and federal laws, school districts must report campus crime to oversight agencies. Once totaled, those reports can have serious ramifications for both the school, its administration, and the district.

  • If a student is suspended from school, the school loses state funding for that student, often resulting in a loss of thousands of dollars.
  • If a school consistently rings up high suspension and assault figures, the principal or the entire administration could be replaced in favor of those who would bring calm to the apparent chaos.
  • If a school's annual disciplinary totals become alarming, affluent parents are less apt to enroll their achieving children in the school, thus lowering the schools academic average — another reason for possible reason for replacing the administration. If the academic figures do not rise sufficiently, the No Child Left Behind Act allows parents to freely transfer their children out of such a school, thus depriving it of even more state funds. This would also be the case if a school were labeled as a "persistently dangerous" school.
  • If the district were to receive a "dangerous" rating, this could do serious damage to the chances of winning the Broad Prize for Urban Education as the nation's most exemplary urban school district, to say nothing of the damage done to the Texas "education miracle."

   Thus it behooves a school administration to keep the chaos and violence low, for the sake of the school, the students, and for the administration's "job security." If one cannot keep the lid on literally, then perhaps it would be necessary to do so figuratively; that is, by "cooking the books," a procedure Houston ISD may have learned from their late benefactors and neighbors at Enron.

   Did the district cook the books? They say no, though they admit to moving some items out of column A to column B, erasing items — like rape, stabbing, and assault — because the students involved were never suspended from school; they went to jail instead and that doesn't count as "school" crime, despite occurring on school property. You see, the student wasn't suspended — he was sentenced. Sounds like Enron accounting to me.

   So — how off the mark was the school's accounting of campus violence? The district's own police force which oversees the 80 middle and high schools, reported 3,091 assaults during the last four years. The district, in turn, reported only 761 to the state's Austin database. Missing were 2,330 cases, including the rape of a disabled 17-year-old in a wheelchair, the stomping and beating of a middle school boy, and the chest-stabbing of a 16-year-old.

   And then there was the discrepancy over suspensions, attributed to a computer glitch by ISD officials. (When in hot water, always blame the computer.) In one year, Houston ISD suspended 2,000 students but reported only 200 to the state. The difference, of course, would have an impact on how much or little a school lost in the way of state funding. No suspension reported, no money lost.

   A more complete report on the widespread misinformation at Houston ISD regarding its campus violence can be found online in the original story, broken by New York Times reporter Sam Dillon. ("Houston's School Violence Data Under a Cloud," The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2003, pp. 1A, 16A)   The district's superintendent, who had made herself unavailable to be interviewed by The Times earlier in the week, held a press conference after the article appeared to denounce it but did not dispute the facts: "I take personal offense at this attack on the public schools of Houston," declared Supt. Kaye Stripling. (Ms. Stripling also took her leave of the whole operation within months and handed in her resignation/retirement. Seeing the writing on the wall [a la the Enron Gang], two other HISD officials followed suit, all of them closely linked to Education Secretary Paige: Cathy Mincberg, chief of HISD business services who encouraged Dr. Paige's "business approach" to education, and board of education member Laurie Bricker, whose architect husband received millions of dollars in school services during her board membership but was recently turned down for a new contract.)

   Not to be outdone, Dallas had its own problem with dropout math. Consider the observations of Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research:

"...the inability of outsiders to check district accounts of student whereabouts can lead to graduation statistics that are grossly in error. Take, for example, the Dallas school district, which reports an annual dropout rate of 1.3 percent. Presenting dropout rates in annual terms is like reporting credit card interest rates in monthly terms; it just makes the number feel smaller. If we convert the annual rate into a cumulative rate (which is how everyone thinks about dropouts), we would expect about 8 percent of an 8th grade class to drop out before graduation. Yet according to my calculations, only 52 percent of 8th grade students in Dallas manage to earn diplomas. The 1.3 percent rate reported by the district has to be a fantasy in a district with half as many graduates as 8th graders and a growing student population.
— from "Graduation Statistics: Caveat Emptor,"
                                                      by Jay P. Green, Education Week Commentary
                                                                                         Jan. 16, 2002, pp. 52, 37

   What it adds up to is a "mirage," not a "miracle," a mirage that the rest of America has been asked to adopt as an "education standard." As Robert Kimball noted after leaving Houston ISD, "In Texas, we now have more people incarcerated than in California, which has 12 million more residents. If we do not build better schools and improve graduation rates, we will soon have to build more prisons." (See Kimball "Gifted" essay.)"

If Houston can cook, we can ALL cook!

s school districts in states like Texas apply increasing pressure to meet higher standards while dangling incentive bonuses at administrators and teachers, the devil increasingly appears in the details. On December 19, 2004, The Daily Morning News released an exclusive report from an investigation of school scores on the state's TAKS test, a report that rattled the nerve center of Texas education.

   Comparing classes' past year test performances with the following year's scores, The Morning News' reporters turned up 25 Houston schools with highly unusual — indeed nearly super-human — class performances and more than 400 suspect schools among the state's 7,700 public schools. More often than not, the students came from low-income areas that normally score near the bottom but within one year had soared to the top. One of the schools, Houston's Wesley Elementary, had been used by both President George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey as a shining example of at-risk urban children who were able to overcome the odds and surpass their wealthier suburban neighbors.

   What The Morning News uncovered were glaring inconsistencies in scores and a faculty conspiracy. "You're expected to cheat there," Donna Garner, a former teacher at Wesley, told The Morning News, adding that her fellow teachers instructed her on how to give students answers while administering tests. "There's no way those scores are real."

  It was radical grade swings like those at Sanderson Elementary, located in a low-income area of Houston, that raised suspicions for the Morning News investigative team:

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.

Excerpted from "Exclusive: Poor schools' TAKS surges raise cheating questions,"
By Jushua Benton and Holly K. Hacker, The Dallas Morning News, Dec. 19, 2004 (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/


NOT JUST IN THE CLASSROOM: Manipulation of the facts to fit the expedient moment would continue throughout all corners of the Bush White House, including the Iraq War. Witness the tragic case of football star Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan and how the Bush-folks lied, covered-up, and finally (and belatedly) apologized for the mess. (See Boots on the Ground review.)

More on the Texas cheating scandal can be found at:

  • "HISD pupils' math skills in question: One elementary's high TAKS scores bring investigation," by Jason Spencer, Houston Chronicle, Dec. 19, 2004 (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/education/stories/121904dnmetcheating.64fa3.html)
  • "DISD probing TAKS scores: FW also joins Houston in investigating schools that might have cheated," by Joshua Benton, The Dallas Morning News, Jan. 7, 2005 (http://www.dallasnews.com/s/dws/news/longterm/stories/010805dnmetcheatfolo.b0cbe.html)
  • "Monitors will police HISD tests," by Joshua Benton, The Dallas Morning News, Jan. 12, 2005 (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/education/stories/010705dnmetcheatfolo.d7236.html)
  • "State plans TAKS cheating inquiry: TEA also will hire expert to help prevent, detect deceit," by Joshua Benton, The Dallas Morning News, January 12, 2005 (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/education/stories/011005dntextaks.978e4837.html)
  • "HISD plan: Fight fraud on the cheap," by Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle, Jan. 8, 2005 (http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/metropolitan/casey/2983201)
  • "Monitors descend for TAKS testing: 70 at Wilmer-Hutchins called agency's biggest anti-cheating effort ever," by Joshua Benton, Dallas Morning News, February 22, 2005
  • "Test scores fall sharply at scrutinized schools; Expert cautions the decline doesn't prove past cheating," by Jason Spencer, Houston Chronicle, Mar. 19, 2005
  • "Another is shown door at Kashmere: Two linked to cheating scandal elsewhere in HISD had been hired to help fix the school," by Jason Spencer, Houston Chronicle, Aug. 23, 2005
  • "Analysis: Houston schools implicated in cheating scandal," Claudio Sanchez, reporting, Morning Edition/NPR News, March 21, 2005
  • "TAKS quiz: A tale of two districts" by Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle, Nov. 29, 2005

Other articles on the Houston dropout scandal can be found at:

   Anyone inclined to think Texas has a corner on the "dropout-pushout" market should read the investigative report by The New York Times' Tamar Lewin and Jennifer Medina, "To Cut Failure Rate, as Schools Shed Students"(The New York Times, July 31, 2003, p. A1, A22); and "More Youths Opt for G.E.D. Tests, Skirting the Hurdle of High School," by Karen W. Arenson (The New York Times, May 15, 2004, p. A14). Further north, Massachusetts' high-stakes MCAS test had its own scandal in 2004 when an entire class of Boston fourth-graders wrote letters describing how the principal took over their class during the state test and encouraged them to change answers while the teacher was out of the room on break. ( "4th-graders say principal urged MCAS cheating," by Anand Vaishnav and Jared Stearns, Boston Globe, June 19, 2004.) NPR's Diane Rehm confers with five expert panelists on the U.S. high school dropout rate at www.wamu.org/programs/dr/07/11/07.php#18269 (55 mins., Nov. 7, 2007).


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