On January 5, a student at Dallas ISD's Sunset High wrote a letter to his school's assistant principal. It was about his math teacher, Richard Hood.
According to the student, Hood was having students in his Algebra II class memorize answers in advance of the coming Assessments of Course Performance test, the end-of-semester exam that determines 15 percent of a student's final grade.
"He had us write down the answers he supplied," the student wrote, according to a district investigation obtained by the Observer. "We were then asked to write the letters of the multiple choice answers on a separate sheet of paper, set it aside, and see if we could answer the problems by memory."
A few days after the boy's letter arrived, an associate principal visited Hood's classroom. He watched, no doubt suspiciously, as Hood passed out a review packet, which the students referred to frequently as they completed a quiz. The associate principal asked if Hood had scrambled the answers. He chuckled and answered that he had. The AP asked how the students were able to finish the quiz so quickly without showing their work. Hood chuckled again. "Mental math," he said.
The method worked. Ninety-four percent of Hood's students passed the exam, blowing away the district average pass rate of 66 percent. But it worked a little too well. The sky-high results, combined with the student's letter, sparked the investigation by the district's Office of Professional Responsibility.
That investigation is one of several conducted by the district earlier this year and obtained by the Observer through Texas' open-records laws. While there have certainly been others, these five provide a snapshot of the lengths teachers will go to prepare students for standardized tests, and they provide even more kindling for the raging debate over standardized testing, teacher evaluations and the education-reform movement. Attempts have been made to contact the teachers named; updates will be provided if and when they respond.
After reviewing test results, interviewing teachers, students and administrators, even conducting a search of Sunset's math office, investigators determined that Hood and four other teachers -- Pamela Jackson, Farzin Farzad, Norberto Reyes and Isaac De Gracia -- had used copies of ACP tests from previous years to coach their students for the exam. That was in blatant violation of the district's policy, which places tight controls on access to and distribution of the tests, since questions are often recycled from year to year.
The school's principal, Anthony Tovar, was not implicated in the cheating scandal, but investigators were troubled by a meeting he reported having with Hood and De Gracia when he took the principal job three years before. That the teachers had told him that the school's former principal, Emilio Castro, had assigned "specific teachers that would not be attentive to cheating to administer state tests." He also "assigned the same type or character of teachers to watch or 'monitor' the hallways," the report states. Tovar didn't report the conversation to the district. He should have, according to the investigation.
In another investigation at Sunset, biology teacher Ernest Stull admitted that he would examine old ACP tests in the testing room, write down everything he could remember as soon as he left, then use the information to prep his students. He told investigators that he "now recognized that what he did was not fair to his students and that his actions probably gave his students a better chance of doing well on the ACP."
Sunset is not alone. In these investigations alone, eight other DISD teachers at three other high schools were found to have violated district testing policy to give their students an advantage on ACP exams.
At Molina High School, head basketball coach Larry Burney and three fellow biology teachers -- Annie Nelson, William Ellis and Denikwa Denson -- were found to have illegal copies of a previous year's test for use as review materials. Burney then lied to school administrators, telling them he had received his review materials at a conference.
DISD began looking into Carter High School math teacher Richard Ensley when an "irregularity report" indicated that some students were cheating on their Math Models ACP. A subsequent investigation determined that he had provided students with slips of paper containing typed test answers.
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Finally, in an investigation that involved a detailed review of computer usage logs, security footage and multiple interviews and affidavits, the district also found Maria Mastoianna had illegally made a copy of an ACP test. She denied doing so but had bragged of her high ACP scores when she taught at Seagoville High School, investigators found.
Twelve of the 13 teachers investigated for cheating are no longer employed by the district.
"Dallas ISD has taken an aggressive approach to test security after irregularities were first reported eight years ago," DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander said in a prepared statement to the Observer. "Teachers in the district's 223 schools are no longer allowed to administer state tests or other secure exams for their own classes and testing is monitored by central staff to make certain that testing procedures are followed. We maintain very strict procedures for ACP testing as well."
The investigations come several months after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story that determined that Dallas ISD, among other districts, had test patterns that "defy statistical probability." DISD officials at the time raised questions about that report's accuracy, but simultaneously vowed to aggressively investigate cheating teachers. If these records are any indication, it appears to be walking that talk.