EL PASO, Texas — A federal audit confirms several schools in El Paso cheated on high-stakes accountability tests during the tenure of now-convicted superintendent Lorenzo Garcia.
The Department of Education audit released Friday says the district prevented some students from taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests. Under Garcia, district officials encouraged low-performing students to drop out or be held back in the 9th grade so they would not take the TAKS test in the 10th grade. Garcia was hired in 2006 and served as superintendent until his arrest in 2012.
The audit took about 2½ years to complete and says that while most of the cheating took place in Bowie High School — a school with a large number of underprivileged students — there was also wrongdoing at Coronado High School, located in a wealthier part of El Paso.
It also says El Paso ISD and the Texas Education Agency violated Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) by allowing students to graduate without taking the TAKS tests.
TEA said in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education that it required El Paso ISD to follow the academic requirements of that law but it failed to ensure that 10th graders took those tests. TEA did not immediately comment on why it failed to make sure the district followed its requirements.
"It is important to note that work to address the issues raised in this federal audit — and to assure they never happen again — are already taking place at the local and state level," said TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culberson.
Interim El Paso Superintendent Vernon Butler said in a statement Friday that "the district described in the report is not in the same place it was two years ago. We have made immediate and long-lasting changes to ensure the acts described are part of our past."
The audit also says that the associate superintendent of Priority Schools, —those schools within the district that had failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress two years in a row and were put on a special program — sent an email directing that all students that came from out-of-country schools were to be placed and kept in the 9th grade — in order to keep them from taking the TAKS test in the 10th grade.
The then-assistant superintendent of Priority Schools was Damon Murphy, who was later hired by the school district in neighboring Canutillo but resigned after facing dismissal by the school board after an audit found indications that he oversaw cheating in the district.
In October, Garcia was sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison after pleading guilty to participating in a conspiracy to prevent hundreds of sophomores from taking the accountability tests fooled authorities into believing that academic standards had improved— resulting in a boost in federal funds and personal bonuses totaling at least $56,000.
Garcia implemented a pre-testing plan to identify the 10th graders likely to fail the standardized tests. The method was intended to keep low-performing students from taking high-stakes state tests used to measure its performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Other large districts also have been ensnared in scandals to raise test scores, most recently in Atlanta, where educators gave answers to students or changed answers after tests were completed. But none has been so brazen as to cast off low-scoring students.
After the scandal came to light last year, Texas officials placed the district on probation, named a monitor to oversee it and said the schools showed "utter disregard" for the students' needs.