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Despite New Efforts That Target Cheating on State Tests, Doubts Remain

The Texas Education Agency is stepping up its scrutiny of accountability violations with a new department devoted to investigating complaints of cheating. But questions remain about the agency's ability to effectively operate the division.

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Amid fears that systematic cheating on state standardized exams could extend beyond an embattled West Texas district — and doubts about its own ability to investigate allegations of improper practices — the state agency charged with overseeing Texas public schools is stepping up its scrutiny of accountability violations.

The Texas Education Agency recently announced it would create a department devoted to reviewing compliance with accountability requirements. The news came on the same day the State Auditor’s Office released a highly critical report that concluded the agency had failed to fully review past claims of cheating and lacked a process to adequately address them in the future.

But questions remain about the cash-strapped agency’s ability to effectively operate the new division. Though the Office of Complaints, Investigations and School Accountability is slated to open Sept. 30, there are few details about how it will be staffed or whether it will require additional state money. 

The auditor’s office review came at Education Commissioner Michael Williams’ request. He took over the agency in September of last year — three months after former El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty to leading a scheme to prevent academically struggling students, primarily Mexican immigrants, from taking the 10th-grade standardized exams that counted toward federal accountability requirements. Garcia’s admission came despite two separate TEA findings in 2010 dismissing allegations of cheating in the district brought to the agency’s attention by former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.

In addition to creating the division, the TEA has also established an internal hotline for employees to report concerns about accountability violations, and it has begun accepting anonymous complaints from sources outside the agency. 

While the new procedures are “a good first step,” said state Sen. José Rodríguez, a Democrat whose district includes El Paso ISD, a further review was necessary to see how schools could circumvent the accountability system to boost their ratings. 

“If we have a system that did not even have the processes set up for appropriate investigations or detection of illegal conduct, as the state audit report concluded,” he said, “then what confidence can we have that our leading educational agency is properly overseeing the school districts and the application of the accountability measures?”

For its efforts to be taken credibly, Rodríguez said, the TEA will also have to back the new division with enough employees and resources to do its job. He noted that the TEA had indicated that it was unable to do full investigations because of budget constraints.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman, said the agency is in the process of finding internal resources to fund the new division, which did not yet have a firm budget.

After reductions in state funding during the 2011 legislative session, the agency dropped a third of its employees to cope with a roughly $48 million budget cut.

In January, Williams told lawmakers in a Senate Finance Committee hearing that the agency’s budget was “down, quite frankly, to bare bones."

During the last legislative session, the Legislature added $12.9 million back to the agency’s administrative budget. About $4 million is marked for implementing legislation expanding the state’s charter school system and changing high school graduation requirements. The remainder is for technological expenses associated with a new statewide student data system.

Meanwhile, concerns that cheating schemes like the one found in the El Paso have spread to other Texas schools. Internal audits at three other El Paso County districts — Socorro, Canutillo and San Elizario — have found practices in place similar to those at El Paso ISD. Reports from those schools have prompted at least two other district, McAllen and Ysleta ISD, to initiate review of their own policies for placing immigrant students. Two separate TEA investigations revealed in August that educators at high schools in Uvalde and Beaumont also either improperly helped students or prevented them from taking standardized tests.

“It seems to me this calls for a review by the state of accountability measures, of standardized tests, and the reliance we place on standardized tests, and how it's possible that school districts across the state can attempt to circumvent the system in order to come out looking good,” said Rodríguez.

Last week, he sent a letter to Williams urging further action at the agency, including an internal investigation identifying the TEA employees at fault for the agency’s failures in El Paso.

On Wednesday, Ratcliffe said the agency does not plan to review the actions of current employees, noting that such a review was not among the recommendations included in the state auditor’s report.

“High-level people who were here in 2010 are no longer with the agency,” Ratcliffe said. “The staff who do remain here were cooperative with the auditor and did everything they could to review the situation.”

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