The Texas Education Agency is moving to create a new investigative division after an audit highlighted serious flaws with how the agency monitors the state’s more than 1,000 school districts.
The state auditor’s office confirmed that the TEA didn’t perform a thorough investigation of cheating allegations in the El Paso district. An El Paso Times investigation revealed that district administrators were holding students back, promoting them, or coercing them into leaving school to improve scores on standardized tests. That gave the appearance of improving academic performance, qualifying the district for more federal funds.
The audit, released Aug. 30, also said the state has a flawed system because education officials depend on school districts to police themselves.
TEA Commissioner Michael Williams blamed his predecessor for failing to investigate allegations of cheating in El Paso, the state’s ninth-largest district. Mr. Williams said the leader of a new investigative unit, which was one of the audit’s recommendations, would be hired by the end of the year and must have a strong investigative or prosecutorial background.
The education agency also said in a statement that it had already implemented some of the audit’s recommendations, chiefly the establishment of an office of complaints, investigations, and school accountability.
The TEA put the El Paso district on probation in August 2012 after the newspaper exposed the cheating scandal. Several officials resigned or were fired, and ex-Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia—who got at least $56,000 in bonuses as a result of the improved test scores—is serving three years in prison for fraud.
The scheme devised by Mr. Garcia was meant to prevent academically struggling students, mostly immigrants from neighboring Mexico with low English proficiency, from taking the state’s high-stakes standardized test in the 10th grade. Some were held back a year, others were inexplicably promoted to the 11th grade, and others were told to drop out and find an education elsewhere.
The TEA also installed a conservator, ousted the board of trustees, and installed a new board following the scandal.
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Cheating Prompts New Watchdog Unit