--------------------------------------- SIDEBAR: Suspicious STAAR results - See website for bar graphs of scores and passing percentages -------------------------------------- Umphrey Lee Elementary was recognized as one of the best schools in Dallas, based primarily on STAAR test scores. But Dallas ISD officials concluded that was a sham, a distinction propped up by teachers feeding students answers on most of the 2012-13 state assessment tests.
Five teachers and an instructional coach resigned as the result of an investigation last October. And by the end of the 2013-14 school year, the students' STAAR results had plummeted, dropping the school from the state's top rating to as low as they go.
District officials, however, never informed Umphrey Lee parents that their children might not have learned as much as their test scores indicated. Nor did the district offer tutoring or other remedial help for those students.
"Wow, I never heard anything. I never received a letter," said Carol Williams-Burnett, whose daughter attended the school in Red Bird. "It is a disservice because they aren't given everything they need. If you don't get what you need from the previous grade, then it will be really hard in the next grade."
The district initially said it was waiting for state action before telling parents. But late Thursday, DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander said that was a mistake.
"We've determined that some things probably could have been handled better," he said. "A situation like this in the future should call for parents to be notified, both by a letter and likely a meeting with parents to explain the situation. We need to do this as we move forward."
Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said that other districts have done just that. "A number of other districts that have had situations sent information out to their own communities based on their own findings without waiting for the state investigation to conclude," she said.
At Umphrey Lee, 198 students may have been affected by the cheating. Dahlander said he was unaware of any special resources offered to them. "That said, it is important to note that there are other assessments used throughout the year to determine how students are performing academically," he said.
In Georgia, however, Atlanta Public Schools are offering help to students after a massive cheating scandal there. The district is spending millions on remediation classes for thousands of children who were affected by bogus test scores, according to news reports.
For years, Umphrey Lee Elementary seemed to defy the odds. Nearly all of the students were from low-income families, yet the school's scores topped those of almost all of the district's 150 elementary schools.
Following the 2010-11 school year, the Texas Education Agency nominated Umphrey Lee as a National Blue Ribbon School, a federal honor given to the best schools. But state test scores that year contrasted with some national tests given to the same students. Only 4 in 10 fifth-graders scored as proficient in math on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The same year, 94 percent of those students passed the TAKS math.
Dahlander said the district responded to an anonymous tip in 2011 about teachers cheating at Umphrey Lee. An investigation led to the resignation of one teacher. It was considered an isolated case, he said.
In 2012, the first year for the new STAAR exams, the school's scores slipped. In 2013, the results were far different. Passing rates on every test except fourth-grade math soared. On the fifth-grade science test, for example, Umphrey Lee ranked third among Texas elementary schools with more than 90 percent of its students from low-income families.
Fifth-graders must pass math and reading tests to be eligible for automatic promotion to sixth grade, so they get a chance to take the test again. Statewide, no more than than half of re-testers pass on their first try. At Umphrey Lee, 85 percent of the math re-testers and 91 percent of the reading re-testers passed. Some of this data set off an alert in a computerized monitoring system Dallas uses to spot unusual jumps in test scores. It automatically looks at each student's test results for the prior two years and computes a predicted score for the current year. If enough scores are much higher than expected, the district starts an investigation.
The monitoring system can't be used for tests that are given only in one grade, such as writing and science in elementary school. And it doesn't check to see if scores take an enormous drop, which might be evidence of cheating the prior year.
But it was enough to trigger an investigation at Umphrey Lee of one third-grade math test, one fourth-grade reading test and the retests for both reading and math in fifth grade. Teachers who supervised the tests were questioned, as were a random selection of students. Some of the students said they saw nothing unusual. But others told a far different story.
"About 20 of the STAAR math retest questions were exactly the same as the ones we worked before the test in Mrs. Tyler's classroom," said one student.
"Mrs. Coleman walked around the classroom and pointed at students' answer choices," said another.
Investigators asked about reading and math but were surprised when students also told them exact questions reviewed in class were on the science test. The fifth-grade science teacher was added to their investigation. Eventually, the district determined that five teachers and an instructional coach had cheated. One teacher quit during the investigation; the others resigned after it was concluded.
Principal now out
Nothing in the investigative reports implicated the principal, Tondolyn Mosley. She remained in her job until the end of the 2013-14 school year, when she was assigned to a new position mentoring DISD principals. The district terminated Mosley on Wednesday after The News started asking about the cheating allegations.
The teachers were identified in DISD reports obtained by The News as Brenda Singleton and Da'Shonya Tyler, both fifth-grade teachers; Arrkeenah Willis and Monica Benjamin, both third-grade teachers; and Ronald Shepard, a science and social studies teacher. The instructional coach was identified as Lenora Coleman.
Mosley, the teachers and the instructional coach could not be reached for comment. All the teachers, including Shepard, who was named the school's Teacher of the Year in 2012, denied violating any testing rules, according to the reports. The next year, however, test scores fell. For example, the fifth-grade science passing rate dropped from 97 percent in 2012-13 to 15 percent last school year.
While the teachers are gone from Dallas schools, their teaching certificates are still active, according to state records. Dallas gave the Texas Education Agency an initial report naming the teachers but hasn't given the agency the full report, which was finished in October. When it arrives, state officials will decide whether sanctions should be brought against the teachers.
Dallas ISD has not changed district procedures as a result of what happened at Umphrey Lee.
"We have implemented several changes to our test security procedures through the years. Unfortunately, it seems that regardless of the additional measures, there are still attempts to cheat the system," Dahlander said. "Our analysis for identifying anomalies is one of the only ones used by school districts in Texas, so perhaps we should make it a point of letting staff members know that is in place to discourage anyone from trying to game the system."
Meanwhile, Umphrey Lee Elementary has plunged in the state accountability ratings for the 2013-14 school year. It was the only school in Texas to tumble from the top to the absolute bottom, failing all four accountability indexes. --------------------------------------- firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com --------------------------------------- Follow Jeffrey Weiss and Matthew Haag on Twitter at @jeffreyweissdmn and at @matthewhaag. **********************************************