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Published in Print: April 14, 1999, as Austin District Charged With Test Tampering

Austin District Charged With Test Tampering

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The Austin, Texas, school district and one of its top administrators were indicted last week after a six-month probe into charges that school officials adjusted student data to raise scores on last year's state exams.

The 16 separate indictments charging the 77,000-student district with altering government records may mark the country's first criminal prosecution against a school district, some education experts believe.

As part of the immediate fallout, Deputy Superintendent Kay Psencik was placed on paid leave following the single, 16-count indictment that accuses her of modifying student-test data and of failing to stop members of her staff from making changes.

If convicted, the district could be fined $160,000, or $10,000 for each charge. Ms. Psencik could face one year in jail, a $4,000 fine, or both.

"This is not a happy day," said Travis County Attorney Ken Oden, who brought the case to a grand jury. "But this action gives us the vehicle to try to correct the problems throughout the system which caused these types of violations."

Ms. Psencik's lawyer, Neal Adams, said his client, a longtime Texas teacher and school administrator, was innocent. "She has done nothing to deserve this," he said. "She intends to defend herself to the hilt."

Meanwhile, A.C. Gonzalez, the district's interim superintendent, said officials were studying the ramifications of the indictments. "Although this matter is of serious concern, it does not diminish the hard work done every day, in every classroom, by every teacher," he said.

Switching Numbers

The probe of the Austin Independent School District began last fall after the Texas Education Agency asked school officials to explain why several students' Social Security numbers were used in place of the state-assigned student numbers on 1998 test data.

An independent probe commissioned by the Austin schools found that student-identification numbers for several low-scoring students at three schools were intentionally altered. The substitutions of student information effectively invalidated the student scores, which, in turn, raised the state ratings of those schools.

Following that investigation, Ms. Psencik, whose office was in charge of student-test data, was reprimanded by the district. In February, she announced her intention to retire at the end of the school year. Ricky Arredondo, a systems analyst who worked under Ms. Psencik, was also reprimanded.

While the district had contended that no laws were broken, County Attorney Oden disagreed and took his case to a Travis County grand jury. He claimed that district officials broke the law by tampering with government records.

Mr. Oden later expanded his investigation into Austin's dropout records and other school documents. That probe is continuing.

Last month, Mr. Arredondo pleaded no contest to charges that he changed government documents. Sentencing for Mr. Arredondo, who resigned from the district, is slated for June.

The county attorney stressed that the indictment against the district does not "imply personal criminal wrongdoing by the board of trustees."

"Proceeding legally against both the individuals and the district itself will give us the chance to seek both personal accountability and improvement in the whole system as well," Mr. Oden said.

Still, the indictment against the district sparked accusations that Mr. Oden, a Democrat who was elected to his position, was grandstanding. Others expressed surprise.

"I've never heard of a school district being criminally indicted," said Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

No court date has been set in the case.

Texas Not Alone

Other states are also dealing with controversy surrounding high-stakes exams. ("Exam-Testing Breaches Put Focus on Security," April 7, 1999.)

For example, Rhode Island officials temporarily canceled five English and mathematics exams last month after discovering that teachers had used previous tests to prepare their students. In New York, Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills has named a panel to study security problems with 4th grade reading tests.

But Texas seems to be the hardest hit--at least for now.

The 210,000-student Houston Independent School District earlier this month asked for the resignation of a principal and three teachers following an internal investigation into alleged tampering with state tests.

The nine-month inquiry there found irregularities at six of the system's 280 schools. Investigators found that students were given oral prompting during last year's state exam, that answer keys were used to correct student answers, and that test security was lacking.

April 1 also was the deadline for 11 districts to report to the state education agency about the high number of erasures on state tests over the past three years. So far, one teacher and one principal have resigned in the 47,000-student Fort Bend district as part of that review.

Vol. 18, Issue 31, Page 3

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