Investigation of makeup credits at Polytechnic High School finds no misconduct

FORT WORTH -- School officials have completed an investigation into whether some Polytechnic High School students actually earned credits they were given for makeup work in a lab and say no wrongdoing was found.

But some question the district's conclusion.

The investigation began last semester when a teacher at Success High School raised questions about the records of a Poly student who was transferring to Success. She alerted administrators, district officials said.

School district spokesman Clint Bond said the district investigated whether students participated properly in the PLATO Learning lab program and whether they received improper credits toward graduation.

PLATO is a computer-based "credit recovery" program that allows students to make up class work or take accelerated courses.

The investigation, which concluded this week, found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of teachers, students or administrative staff, Bond said. Records of 64 Poly students going back four years were reviewed.

Spokeswoman Barbara Griffith said the exhaustive investigation found that no student received credit who should not have. "Poly High School has worked too hard for anyone to call them cheaters," Griffith said.

Computer records questioned

But sources close to the investigation said some findings indicate that it was unlikely that certain students earned credits properly. They declined to be identified for fear of retaliation from district officials.

For example, they said, work that should have taken a student several minutes to complete showed that it was completed in about one minute. Students got credit for work marked as earned during summer vacation when the PLATO lab was not operating.

"It was clear that someone was going in and changing the grades for Poly students," one district employee said.

The sources said they feared that the credit recovery system was being manipulated because of pressure for Poly to reach the state's acceptable rating and avoid forced closing.

Bond said the teacher whose questions sparked the investigation misunderstood Poly's procedures because each campus handles the PLATO lab differently.

At Poly, students could print out assignments and take them home, Bond said. Grades were entered by a teacher. That could indicate that a student spent minimal time logged on, because work was done on printouts, Bond said.

Griffith said a portfolio of work for the student in question at Success was also reviewed.

If teachers were entering work completed on paper into the system after the last day of school, it could appear that the work was done during the summer, the officials said. They also noted that PLATO is offered during summer school.

But the sources questioned the district's explanation, saying credit is earned in PLATO through a series of tests that students must be logged on to take. Even if those tests were printed out, the time to log on and print out that work and then enter grades would be longer than a minute, they said.

On the brink of being closed

Sylvia Reyna, the district's chief of administration, said that tests could be printed out for a student to take on paper and that a result could be that a student's "time on task" would be "zero." If a student had nearly passed a course and had to use PLATO to recover a credit, she said, that student could have earned the credit faster than other students.

"It's unfounded to suggest that we're being disingenuous" in our investigation, Reyna said. She said allegations that cheating was involved are without merit.

The Texas Education Agency has not been contacted about the situation, spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. The state would review a school's rating if it was found to be achieved fraudulently, she said.

Bond said no information was forwarded to the TEA because the district did not find evidence of wrongdoing.

Poly was on the brink of being closed by the TEA in 2009 after the east Fort Worth school was rated academically unacceptable four years in a row. A fifth year could have triggered closure under state law, but students made dramatic double-digit gains that year, and the school got an acceptable rating.

But in 2010, the school dipped back to an academically unacceptable rating because of its completion rate -- a calculation of the number of students graduating on time or continuing in school after four years.

In October, the district concluded an investigation at Arlington Heights High School. One of the issues administrators noted was poor record-keeping in Heights' credit recovery program.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700