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Published in Print: January 16, 2002, as Austin Cheating Scandal Ends in No-Contest Plea, Fine

Austin Cheating Scandal Ends in No-Contest Plea, Fine

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The Austin, Texas, school district closed the book on an almost 3-year-old testing scandal last week, pleading no contest to a criminal conviction and agreeing to pay a $5,000 fine.

The conviction stems from the actions of no more than two district administrators, who the county attorney alleges manipulated data from state tests to make it appear that several elementary schools in the 78,000-student district had done better than they actually had. Scores from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, are used to determine district and school ratings.

Travis County Attorney Ken Oden took the apparently unusual step of charging the Austin city schools, as well as the two employees, with the crime of tampering with government documents. ("Austin District Charged With Test Tampering," April 14, 1999.)

The district fought the charges in court, arguing that only the administrators should have been criminally charged. But in November, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals turned aside the district's appeal, giving it no further legal recourse.

The case was largely resolved in 1999, when the capital-city district agreed to plead guilty to one of 16 charges—one for each test that was allegedly manipulated—if it lost on the issue of whether it could be criminally charged. In that event, the district also agreed to improve its efforts to prevent dropouts.

Anticlimactic End

Dropout data became an issue when an independent consulting firm investigating the test-tampering also found problems with the district's dropout-reporting system specifically and its computer systems more generally. The dropout and computer problems were not said to involve wrongdoing, however.

Last year, the first year of the new dropout-prevention efforts, the district's dropout rate declined by 35 percent, according to district officials.

Christopher Gunter, the lawyer for the district, said the last chapter in the district's case was somewhat anticlimactic. Since the agreement, if not before, "the school district has looked forward, and ... steps were taken to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again," he said.

Mr. Oden, the Travis County prosecutor, could not be reached for comment.

Separate criminal cases for a former deputy superintendent and a former central-office employee, both charged with government-records tampering in the case, are pending. The former deputy superintendent has denied wrongdoing, while the lower-level employee has pleaded no contest.

Vol. 21, Issue 18, Page 3

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