A Texas Tempest

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Schools in Austin face criminal charges of manipulating test data to boost scores.

The Austin, Texas, school district and one of its top administrators were indicted last month 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 because prosecutors accused her of modifying student-test data and failing to stop members of her staff from making changes. If convicted, Psencik could face one year in jail, a $4,000 fine, or both. The district could be fined $160,000, or $10,000 for each charge.

"This action gives us the vehicle to try to correct the problems throughout the system which caused these types of violations," says Travis County Attorney Ken Oden, who brought the case to a grand jury.

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

Meanwhile, A.C. Gonzalez, the district's interim superintendent, says officials are 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 says.

Other states are also dealing with controversy surrounding high-stakes exams. Rhode Island officials temporarily canceled five English and mathematics exams in March after discovering that teachers had used previous tests to prepare their students. In New York, Commissioner of Education Richard 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 last 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 say 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.

In Austin, questions about the district's handling of test scores were first raised last fall. The Texas Education Agency asked Austin 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 alterations effectively invalidated the students' scores, which, in turn, raised the state ratings of those schools.

Following that investigation, 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 this school year.

Although the district 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.

Oden later expanded his investigation to include Austin dropout records and other school district documents. That probe is continuing.

Indictments against the district sparked accusations that the county attorney was grandstanding.

The attorney stresses 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," Oden says.

Still, the indictments against the school district sparked accusations that Oden, a Democrat who was elected to his position, was grandstanding. Others express surprise. "I've never heard of a school district being criminally indicted," says Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

--Robert C. Johnston and Michelle Galley

Vol. 10, Issue 8, Page 14

Published in Print: May 1, 1999, as A Texas Tempest
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