Posted on October 15, 2012

El Paso Schools Confront Scandal of Students Who ‘Disappeared’ at Test Time

Manny Fernandez, New York Times, October 13, 2012

It sounded at first like a familiar story: school administrators, seeking to meet state and federal standards, fraudulently raised students’ scores on crucial exams.

But in the cheating scandal that has shaken the 64,000-student school district in this border city, administrators manipulated more than numbers. They are accused of keeping low-performing students out of classrooms altogether by improperly holding some back, accelerating others and preventing many from showing up for the tests or enrolling in school at all.

It led to a dramatic moment at the federal courthouse this month, when a former schools superintendent, Lorenzo Garcia, was sentenced to prison for his role in orchestrating the testing scandal. But for students and parents, the case did not end there. A federal investigation continues, with the likelihood of more arrests of administrators who helped Mr. Garcia.

Federal prosecutors charged Mr. Garcia, 57, with devising an elaborate program to inflate test scores to improve the performance of struggling schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and to allow him to collect annual bonuses for meeting district goals.

The scheme, elements of which were carried out for most of Mr. Garcia’s nearly six-year tenure, centered on a state-mandated test taken by sophomores. Known as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, it measures performance in reading, mathematics and other subjects. {snip}

Students identified as low-performing were transferred to charter schools, discouraged from enrolling in school or were visited at home by truant officers and told not to go to school on the test day. For some, credits were deleted from transcripts or grades were changed from passing to failing or from failing to passing so they could be reclassified as freshmen or juniors.

Others intentionally held back were allowed to catch up before graduation with “turbo-mesters,” in which students earned a semester’s worth of credit for a few hours of computer work. A former high school principal said in an interview and in court that one student earned two semester credits in three hours on the last day of school. Still other students who transferred to the district from Mexico were automatically put in the ninth grade, even if they had earned credits for the 10th grade, to keep them from taking the test.


The program was known as “the Bowie model,” and Mr. Garcia had boasted of his success in raising test scores, particularly in 2008, when all of the district’s eligible campuses earned a rating of “academically acceptable” or better from the state. But parents and students had another name for what was happening: “los desaparecidos,” or the disappeared.

State education data showed that 381 students were enrolled as freshmen at Bowie in the fall of 2007. The following fall, the sophomore class was 170 students. Dozens of the missing students had “disappeared” through Mr. Garcia’s program, said Eliot Shapleigh, a lawyer and former state senator who began his own investigation into testing misconduct and was credited with bringing the case to light. {snip}

“Desaparecidos is by far the worst education scandal in the country,” Mr. Shapleigh said. “In Atlanta, the students were helped on tests by teachers. The next day, the students were in class. Here, the students were disappeared right out of the classroom.”


In June, Mr. Garcia pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. One charge was connected to the scandal, and the other involved his efforts to secure a $450,000 no-bid contract for a consulting firm run by his former mistress. He was sentenced to three years and six months in federal prison and was ordered to pay $180,000 in restitution to the district.

He was also fined $56,500, the amount of testing-related bonuses he had received.