Cheating scandal lands ex-schools chief in prison in El Paso

There’s the garden-variety form of cheating on standardized tests — and then there’s the kind that is landing the former superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District in prison for 3 1/2 years.

Ex-schools chief Lorenzo Garcia was sentenced by a federal judge in part for his role in a conspiracy to force out low-testing students so that they would not drag down the scores of the district. The test scores were used to measure whether schools were meeting accountability standards. The El Paso Times reported that Garcia, along with six unidentified co-conspirators, had 10th graders tested early so that low scorers could be singled out and then driven out of school,

Federal documents quoted by the newspaper said the conspirators “created the false demographics by improperly causing students to withdraw from school, discouraging students from enrolling in school, denying students entering EPISD from foreign countries properly earn credits, improperly reclassifying students from the tenth grade to the ninth or eleventh grade by changing passing grades to failing and failing grades to passing and by deleting students’ credits.”

The scheme worked for a while, as test scores rose in most of the district’s high schools and the district’s academic rating improved. But the whole thing unraveled when the El Paso Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents and the district owned up.

Garcia had pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud for directing his employees to engage in the conspiracy and to a second count in which he was charged with misleading the board of education so that it would award a $450,000 no-bid contract to one of his lovers, the El Paso Times also reported. Along with the prison term, he was ordered by the judge to pay $180,000 in restitution and a $56,500 fine.

Most of the dozens of scandals involving cheating on high-stakes tests in recent years have involved teachers and principals erasing wrong answers and marking in the right ones. Garcia brought cheating to a whole new level.

There is, of course, no excuse for cheating on these tests, even when they are being inappropriately used in a high-stakes way to evaluate students, teachers, schools and districts. But this is just one more example of how desperate teachers and administrators have felt in the wake of federal and state policies that demand the high-stakes use of test scores for evaluation.

 
Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 5, 2012