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Houston Miracle PR Spin Linked to Paige

The math doesn't add up at Sharpstown High School. Two years ago, test scores were up, dropouts were down and a new principal had just begun to make her mark around campus.

But state investigators now acknowledge that the school should have been under investigation for having too many students skip a mandatory test that year. Coupled with an ongoing investigation of the front office for faking the dropout rate, the growing evidence raises the question of whether administrators felt pressured to change figures that lead to high ratings and performance bonuses.

"The education miracle in Houston is all spin and PR," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, an outspoken critic of the state's accountability system. "My belief is it's deceptive and started not with the current superintendent but with the previous one (Rod Paige, now the U.S. secretary of education). The accountability system and the (state) test are good tools. But when you put somebody's job on the line for somebody else's performance, you're going to have people cutting corners."

HISD denies there was any funny business with the state-mandated Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, until this year the ruler by which schools were measured. The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills has replaced the TAAS.

"If there was any hint of impropriety, we would investigate it vigorously and fix it," said HISD spokeswoman Adriana Villarreal.

Some teachers, most of whom asked not to be identified, say Sharpstown routinely skewed outcomes on the TAAS test to show improvement when there wasn't any. The school found ways to exclude weak students from the all-important sophomore exam, teachers say, mostly by classifying them as freshmen or juniors.

Sharpstown's numbers show how misleading self-reported statistics can be and how they can be manipulated in the state's accountability system, one that in large part foreshadows what the rest of the nation can expect as the No Child Left Behind Act takes hold. The act, one of President Bush's most anticipated initiatives, largely imitates the Texas system of grading schools by a matrix of student performance numbers, and ties federal funding to school success.

In 2001 -- the same year with questionable dropout reporting -- Sharpstown made some of its biggest gains on the TAAS. Principal Carol Wichmann was in her second year on campus, and she had begun sweeping changes to class structure. Wichmann took over with a directive to clean up a campus with flattening test scores and high teacher turnover. The previous principal left after Christmas break in 1998.

Wichmann's impact was immediate. A new leadership magnet was launched. Between 2000 and 2001, TAAS scores for the district and the state fell slightly. Sharpstown, however, saw gains on nearly every portion of the test and from every demographic group, most notably a 15-point jump in the percentage of Hispanic students passing all sections of the test.

The same year, though, nearly a quarter of Sharpstown's 10th-graders did not take the TAAS. Twenty-three percent did not sit for the exam, five times higher than the district's average for students missing the test and six times higher than the state average, according to accountability records from the Texas Education Agency.

The 23 percent who did not take the TAAS fell into three categories: absent, special-education students or limited English speakers, and "other."

Students can be marked absent on test day, but too many in that closely watched category triggers a TEA audit. At nearly 4 percent, Sharpstown had five times as many absences as the district average, but not enough to raise TEA's suspicions.

Special-education students and limited English speakers were exempted from the TAAS. Those have been certified into their classifications, and their exceptions are well-documented.

Among Houston public schools, Sharpstown, with 15 percent, had the highest percentage of its students marked "other" in 2001, the TEA figures show. Among more than 6,700 schools statewide administering the TAAS that year, only 42 used the excuse more often, the vast majority of those being prison schools or charter schools for troubled youths.

HISD's Villarreal said a new district policy created an appearance that 70 Sharpstown sophomores did not take the TAAS. Most of them, she said, had passed it the previous year. But they were classified as sophomores again because that year Wichmann asked for and received a district waiver that allows the school to retain students who did not pass all four core classes.

For example, a student could pass all his 9th-grade classes except math. He could make up the credit in summer school, but the following year the school would still classify him as a 9th-grader, keeping his TAAS score out of the critical ranking.

The same policy, however, would create a group of 10th-graders who had already passed the TAAS but are still considered sophomores in their third year of high school. Villarreal said that was the case with 59 of the 70 students who did not take the TAAS in 2001.

"This waiver of board credit policy is intended to encourage students to exert more effort in their academic courses, rather than just try to get by on electives, P.E., etc.," Villarreal said.

HISD's school board this year adopted the credit-waiver policy for all its high schools. Over the past few years, as many as 16 Houston high schools have had the same policy, but none has had a higher percentage of students exempted from the TAAS than Sharpstown.

TEA did not penalize the school, but Ron Rowell, TEA's senior director of school governance, said the agency should have investigated Sharpstown just on the rarity of its test numbers.

"What you've been reading about Sharpstown and the investigation has been based on leaver (dropout) codes," said Rowell. "That 15 percent should have triggered an investigation. That is a very high percentage of `other' for a regular high school."

If TEA had acted, it would have questioned other Houston campuses. Kashmere, Lee, Madison, Scarborough and Wheatley high schools all have had more than 10 percent of their students exempted for reasons marked "other" at least once in the past four years, according to state records.

At the Broad Foundation, which last October named HISD the nation's best urban district, representatives have said they reviewed more statistics than available anywhere else before making the decision. The $1 million award is based largely on closing the achievement gap between Anglo and minority students.

"The Houston school district had the local and state accountability numbers to earn the prize," said Becca Bracy, a Broad Foundation associate director.

Bracy said the foundation is focused on selecting the next Broad Prize winner and not on reconsidering Houston, the inaugural winner.

The way the state's accountability system and HISD's performance pay plan work, numbers are everything. The matrix of hard data depends more heavily on standardized test scores than it does on dropout rates. So changing dropout figures alone may not be worth much to a school or its administrators.

One office worker, computer specialist Kenneth Cuadra, has admitted he changed dropout data at Sharpstown High, testifying to a district investigator that his supervisors coerced him into doing it. HISD has not determined whether school administrators were involved in the fraud, but the district has asked high-profile lawyer Rusty Hardin to investigate the claim.

HISD first announced that Wichmann would retire and become a district consultant, then later announced that she would not. Wichmann declined to be interviewed by the Houston Chronicle.

The principal knew the importance of good-looking numbers. Sharpstown had a fair but not stellar academic reputation. In announcing a new class structure last fall, Wichmann expressed a keen interest in accountability data, as well as a goal to set a more challenging curriculum.

"The data just could not deny we had to do something to personalize our environment here and to try to reach every kid and to try to make our curriculum more rigorous," Wichmann said in August, referring to numbers that showed Sharpstown enrolled 800 incoming freshmen and about 250 seniors. "You have to make changes. You can't just sit with the status quo when the data is blinking at you in neon lights."

In 2000-2001, Wichmann's second full school year on campus, in-school suspensions soared to 1,267 from 535. The number of students assigned to alternative school for discipline problems grew to 66 from 23, increasing the number of students who may not count against the school's accountability rating.

Former Sharpstown teacher Joanna Pasternak is one of several who told the Chronicle that teachers considered the credit waiver a trick for exempting students from standardized tests.

Students who were considered freshmen for two years would become juniors in their third year, never having been counted as sophomores and never having their TAAS score count against the school. Before this year, the 10th-grade test was the one that counted toward accountability ratings.

"You can see how the test scores are played with," Pasternak said. "It's the counselors and assistant principals, not the teachers, who classify the kids."

Rowell, the TEA director, said policies like HISD's credit waiver allow manipulation of test scores through student classifications. Starting this year, TEA will monitor how students progress through high schools.

"We are finding campuses, not just in Houston, that have some questionable practices," Rowell said. "We have found kids jumping from freshman to junior year. We've just discovered it's a bigger deal than we thought, with schools saying a student doesn't have enough credits to take the tests."

Not only has TEA changed its policies to find districts turning in funny numbers, but HISD also has adjusted its system.

Executive Deputy Superintendent Abe Saavedra said the district will monitor accountability data more closely. The district also is considering changing the bonus pay plan to punish administrators who file incorrect information.

"It's not the kind of thing you hand to a data clerk and then hold just the data clerk accountable," Saavedra told the Chronicle editorial board last month. "When it doesn't happen right, everybody in that office has some accountability."

So far, only one person -- a clerk at Westside High School -- has been demoted for filing bad reports. HISD reassigned Cuadra and Assistant Principal Robert Kimball during the investigation into Sharpstown's changed dropout reports. Kimball has been offered an assistant principal job at another school. Administrators are still considering what to do with Cuadra.

— Zanto Peabody
staff writer
Houston Chronicle
Sharpstown numbers game shows flaw in school reform





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