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.
During Garcia's administration, district officials encouraged low-performing students to drop out or held them back in the 9th grade so they would not take the TAKS test in the 10th grade.
The audit took about 2 ½ years to complete and it says that while most of the cheating took place in Bowie High School, a school with a large number of underprivileged students. The audit states the same practices that kept some students from taking standardized tests took place at Coronado High School, located in the more affluent West side of El Paso.
Federal auditors in the report said EPISD leadership was not forthcoming or cooperative when the district was being investigated from 2009 to 2011. Auditors also said the district did not have adequate internal controls that could have prevented the cheating.
The report also states Garcia's-then-Chief of Staff, Terri Jordan, who took helm of the district after his arrest until her contract was terminated by the board, was not forthcoming with auditors until local media uncovered the cheating.
The audit also slams former EPISD administrator, Damon Murphy for his time as the Chief of Priority Schools at EPISD. The report confirms Murphy ordered all out-of-country transfer students be placed in 9th grade no matter how many credits they had.
After leaving EPISD, Murphy was Superintendent at Canutillo High School until December of last year, when the board voted to fire him after a district audit showed transcript manipulation at that district as well. That internal audit was a proactive choice by the Canutillo board. Canutillo's board president, Armando Rodriguez, said it's problematic that the Texas Education Agency does not investigate cheating unless someone blows the whistle, and even then, the investigations have not been thorough.
"The Texas Education Agency has the ability to audit and investigate school districts but of course right now they're waiting for school districts to only self report or somebody to report to the Texas Education about these issues," said Rodriguez.
EPISD interim Superintendent Vernon L. Butler released the following statement:
"The district described in the final USDE report is not in the same place it was two years ago. We have made immediate and long-lasting changes to ensure that the acts described in the report are part of our past. After reviewing the report, it is clear that more changes are imminent. Policies and procedures will continue to be strengthened and we will emerge a stronger, better district. We won't forget the history that led to this audit and TEA sanctions. It will serve as a reminder and guide to ensure that history will not repeat itself.
We must never forget that we are here to serve all students and provide them with excellent educational opportunities. Through the Alpha Initiative, we have worked diligently to reach out to our former students to ensure they know about their options to re-enroll and complete their education if they have not already graduated.
Lastly, as interim superintendent, I have emphasized my own strong ethical values. I have high expectations for our senior administration and campus leadership as we continue rebuilding and restoring the culture in EPISD. I am committed to working with the Board of Managers as they search for a permanent superintendent to continue our progress and make noticeable, positive change. It's a new day in EPISD."
The report asks the TEA to further examine how to monitor cheating and the EPISD board to institute policies that better spot and prevent transcript manipulation.
The Canutillo Independent School District issued the following statement following the release of EPISD audit release:
A former superintendent of the Canutillo Independent School District is named in the U.S. Department of Education Audit for his alleged involvement in testing practices during his tenure as an employee of the El Paso Independent School District. Canutillo ISD acted in a timely fashion to investigate testing practices at its own campuses, and the Board of Trustees acted swiftly and lawfully to address any deficiency that was identified by both the CISD Internal Audit Office and the Texas Education Agency. The District continues to work the TEA on a Corrective Action Plan to guarantee proper testing techniques are set up and used at all CISD campuses. CISD cannot comment on issues affecting other school districts, however, the Board of Trustees has formally asked the U.S. Department of Education to look into the systematic integration of high-stakes testing administered by the TEA as a source of concern for student achievement - especially for school districts serving large numbers of students with limited English proficiency.