EL PASO, Texas (AP) — A federal judge sentenced the former superintendent of El Paso Independent School District to more than three years in prison Friday for his participation in a conspiracy to improve the district's high-stakes tests scores by removing low-performing students from classrooms.
Lorenzo Garcia's scheme to prevent hundreds of sophomores from taking the accountability tests fooled authorities into believing that academic standards had improved in his West Texas district — resulting in a boost in federal funds and personal bonuses totaling at least $56,000.
Garcia pleaded guilty to two fraud counts in June; one in the testing scandal and another in which he misled the school board so that his lover would receive a $450,000 no-bid contract to produce school materials.
On Friday, federal judge David Briones sentenced him to 3½ years in prison on each fraud count, to be served at the same time. Garcia also was ordered to pay $180,000 in restitution and fined $56,500 — the amount he received as a bonus from the district for its success on test scores.
"As superintendent, I am responsible for everything that went on in my district," Garcia said before the sentence was read to him by federal judge David Briones.
Court documents indicate at least six other people helped Garcia organize the testing scheme.
Mark Morgan, the FBI director for El Paso, said outside the court building that the investigation continues, but he would not comment on whether more arrests are coming.
The 3½-year sentence had been agreed upon in a plea deal between Garcia and the government. Robert Pitman, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, described it as "fair" and "a significant deterrent."
"Garcia abused the trust of the citizens of El Paso. He shamefully turned his time and attention to fraudulently obtaining performance based bonuses for himself. Today, he was held accountable for this breach of trust," Pitman said in a statement.
Garcia, who was hired in 2006, implemented a plan with several other administrators that allowed for the pre-testing of 10th-graders to identify those who were likely to fail the standardized tests. The method, known as the "Bowie Model" because it was employed with the most force at Bowie High School, was intended to keep low performing students from taking high-stakes state tests used to measure its performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Other large districts also 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.
After the scandal came to light last year, Texas officials placed the district on probation, named a monitor to oversee it and said the schools showed "utter disregard" for the students' needs.
In El Paso, 10th graders who performed poorly on the pre-tests were held back in the ninth grade or promoted to the 11th grade before the state tests were administered. To keep other students from taking the 10th grade tests, the district held those who recently transferred from Mexico in the ninth grade, told older students to leave and obtain a GED elsewhere and threatened some students with fines for allegedly living in Mexico, outside the El Paso School District's area.