Texas Education Agency Creates Department to Investigate Cheating

The Texas agency charged with guaranteeing integrity in standardized testing is stepping up its cheating investigations in light of fears that cheating recently uncovered in a West Texas district might not be an isolated incident. The Texas Education Agency announced that it will be creating a department with the sole responsibility of overseeing how districts complying with accountability requirements.

However, while the new department’s mission is clear, how it will be carried out remains a big question. The TEA is already dealing with shrinking budgets and staff, so how many resources will be made available to the new Office of Complaints, Investigations and School Accountability so it can investigate instances of cheating, is unclear.

What jump-started the new effort was a recently released report by the State Auditor’s Office which shed light on inadequate efforts by the department to investigate claims of irregularity in test administration in districts around the state.

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.

According to Morgan Smith of The Texas Tribune, TEA will also set up a hotline to allow anonymous complaints about accountability violations both from agency employees and those outside the agency. However, to state Senator José Rodríguez who represents El Paso ISD, this should only be regarded as an initial step. He believes that the agency needs to look inwards to figure out how it allowed districts to get away with subverting the accountability system to boost performance rankings for so long.

“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.