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Audit Says Texas Vulnerable To School Cheating

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EL PASO (AP) - A state audit has found that the Texas Education Agency is unable to detect widespread cheating on the state’s school accountability system, according to a published report.

The audit report is to be released Friday, but the El Paso Times obtained an advance copy Thursday. The newspaper reports the State Auditor’s Office found that state education officials must depend on school districts to police themselves.

State Education Commissioner Michael Williams requested the audit to see how the TEA failed to detect widespread cheating ultimately exposed at the El Paso Independent School District in 2010. The Times, whose investigation in 2012 documented cheating the TEA missed two years earlier, reports the audit report raises questions about the integrity of the entire state school accountability system.

The report points to TEA leadership failures under predecessor Robert Scott, Williams told the newspaper in an interview Thursday.

“This was an entire organizational breakdown and I think, quite frankly, it started at the top of the organization. It started with the old leadership team, who failed this agency, failed the people of the city of El Paso and failed this state,” Williams said.

Scott did not respond to requests for comment, the Times reported. The Associated Press was unable to find a working listed number for Scott.

The state placed the El Paso school district on probation in August 2012 after the newspaper reports exposed the cheating scandal. District officials were accused of holding students back, promoting them or coercing them into leaving school to get rid of underperforming students and improve the district’s scores on standardized tests.

That gave the appearance of improving academic performance, which qualified the district for more federal funds. Several officials resigned or were fired, and ex-Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia — who received at least $56,000 in bonuses as a result of the improved test scores — is serving 3 years in prison for fraud.

Also, the state stripped the district’s board of trustees of its power and replaced it with a state-appointed board to manage the state’s ninth-largest school district.

According to the state audit report, the TEA’s requirement that districts and charter schools police themselves does not take into account potential conflicts of interest that could thwart exposure of cheating.

The auditors recommend that the TEA create of an office of complaints, investigations and school accountability. Such an office should be up and running by the end of the year, Williams told the newspaper. The agency already has revised its policies to allow anonymous complaints and set up an internal hotline and email address for potential whistleblowers, he added.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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