In a Friday, Sept. 7, 2012 photo, activist Javier Diaz, left, 82, shows former Texas state senator Elliot Shapleigh signatures he collected to demand an overhaul of the El Paso Independent School District, in El Paso, Texas. A cheating scandal in which schools would get rid of underperforming students to artificially inflate their high stakes test scores has rocked the El Paso ISD, landed a former superintendent in jail and prompted the Texas Education Agency to put the district on probation. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
EL PASO, Texas (AP) — A former El Paso Independent School District superintendent is scheduled for sentencing Friday in federal court for his participation in a scheme to fraudulently improve high-stakes testing scores of schools in his district by getting rid of students likely to fail those tests.
Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty in June to two counts of fraud and faces up to 3½ years in prison. Garcia admitted to devising a scheme to keep low performing students from taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Some students were held back in the ninth grade while others would be told to drop out so they would not be among the 10th graders tested.
Garcia's scheme pushed out hundreds of low-performing sophomores to prevent them from taking accountability tests. The appearance of improving academic standards meant that the district qualified for more federal money and Garcia got at least $56,000 in bonuses.
Court documents indicate at least six other people helped Garcia organize the scheme. The FBI has said it is still investigating.
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.
In the short term, the strategy worked. Test scores improved in most high schools and the district's overall rating improved from "academically acceptable" in 2005 to "recognized" in 2010 — the second-highest rating possible.
In 2010, the Texas Education Agency had cleared Garcia of allegations brought by then state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh. But in late 2011, the El Paso Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between the federal Education Department and the school district. When the attorney general ruled that the records must be released, the district acknowledged the scandal.
State officials have placed the district on probation, named a monitor to oversee it and said the schools had shown "utter disregard" for student needs.
Other large districts have been ensnared in scandals to raise test scores, most recently in Atlanta, where educators gave answers to students or changed answers after tests were completed. But none has been so brazen as to cast off low-scoring students.