Texas school district rebuilds after fraudulent testing

By JUAN CARLOS LLORCA

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 10:20 p.m. MDT

EL PASO, Texas — During his sophomore year, Jose Avalos was urged by a principal to drop out of high school. The next year, his brother was told to do the same after entering the 10th grade. A third Avalos brother shared the same fate in 2009.

Administrators at Bowie High School cited excessive tardiness in their efforts to remove the siblings. But now the brothers suspect they were targeted for an entirely different reason: The district was trying to push out hundreds of low-performing sophomores to prevent them from taking accountability tests. The scheme was designed to help El Paso schools raise academic standards, qualify for more federal money and ensure the superintendent got hefty bonuses.

"I thought I was going crazy. I even doubted my sons," said the boys' mother, Grisel Avalos. She said she tried several times to keep her sons in class, but district officials "were on the side of the teachers and the principal."

Three years after the youngest of the Avalos brothers dropped out, the former superintendent faces prison time, state officials are strictly monitoring the schools and the district is trying to contact ousted students to help them complete their education.

"A few people did a lot of damage," interim Superintendent Kenneth George said. "Now we want to make sure these things never happen again."

The idea to cast out the weakest sophomores originated with former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, who pleaded guilty to fraud in a case that could put him behind bars for up to 31/2 years. He's scheduled to be sentenced Friday.

After being hired in 2006, Garcia soon began implementing a plan with several other administrators that included pre-testing 10th-graders to identify those who were likely to fail standardized tests. He even asked an employee to photograph students crossing the border so they could be forced out on the grounds that they were living in Mexico and not within the district.

Garcia "was looking for 'bad kids,' " said Mark Mendoza, the district official who reluctantly photographed students crossing a border bridge during three days in 2008.

"I told him: 'Is this a residence check? Or are you asking me to get rid of kids that will not perform well?' " Mendoza recalled. "It was the most uncomfortable thing in the world for me. I threw the game. I tried to find all the reasons possible to kill this idea."

In the short term, the strategy worked. Test scores improved at eight of 11 high schools. The district's overall rating improved from "academically acceptable" in 2005 to "recognized" in 2010 — the second-highest rating possible.

But the achievements came amid startling enrollment declines for sophomores.

Austin High School, for instance, had 615 freshmen in 2005, but that number had dropped 40 percent by the time accountability tests were given the following school year. With the next batch of 571 freshmen, only about half were still enrolled by the time the tests were administered.

Students with bad grades, low attendance or limited English proficiency would be held in the ninth grade and then promoted to the 11th grade. Or if they were old enough, they might be told to seek other options such as attending a charter school or obtaining their GED elsewhere. Many of them had recently transferred from nearby Juarez, Mexico.

The whole idea, said former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, was to make those students "disappear" so they would not be counted among the students who were tested.

In June, Garcia admitted defrauding the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education in his efforts to secure $56,500 in performance bonuses and federal funding for the district. His lawyers did not return repeated requests for comment.

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