McALLEN — The passing mention in an El Paso audit of how the McAllen school district enrolls English-learning immigrant students, which could have affected high-stakes federal testing data, has prompted McAllen ISD to order an independent investigation.
In an audit of the Socorro Independent School District, about 800 miles northwest of here in El Paso, McAllen was mentioned as the only other district in Texas with a policy that automatically places immigrant high school students in ninth grade.
In McAllen, students new to Texas and who speak a language other than English are enrolled in ninth grade after a transcript analysis is requested and they undergo testing, according to a document from the McAllen school district included in the El Paso audit. The McAllen district then holds students’ state elective credits until the end of that year.
In El Paso, a similar policy had the effect of often eventually bumping students to 11th grade, meaning they skipped sophomore year — when students undergo federal accountability testing.
To be clear, the McAllen school district is not accused of cheating, but in the world of Texas education, the questionable practice — at first glance — shares a similar characteristic to a high-profile scandal in El Paso that dates back to 2010.
Attorney Rick Lopez said the McAllen school district has hired his firm — San Antonio-based Schulman, Lopez and Hoffer — to carry out the investigation into the practice.
He said his firm works with school districts across the state, and in carrying out audits, the question of whether policies were an “attempt to game the system” or were fueled by legitimate reasons is always asked.
“Motivation would play a big part,” Lopez said.
The McAllen district is gathering documents his firm has requested, Lopez said, and within the next few weeks they’ll be interviewing McAllen school district employees.
Lopez said they hope to be done with the audit in a few weeks, but won’t know how long the process will take until they begin the review.
Calls to McAllen Superintendent James Ponce on Tuesday afternoon went unanswered. Questions from The Monitor about how long the practice has been in place and whether any employees have been placed on leave related to the matter also went unanswered.
“We are aware of the assertions issued by Socorro ISD’s auditor with regard to McAllen’s administrative regulations,” the district said in a statement first sent to the El Paso Times and then forwarded to The Monitor. “We shall immediately engage an outside firm to conduct an independent review.”
The El Paso district, according to its audit, held the high school credits of only English-learning immigrant students from Mexico. It is not immediately clear if the McAllen district has done the same.
The McAllen document, titled “Recent Immigrant Student Enrollment Process High School Level,” notes it was updated in February 2012.
“Although that district (McAllen) uses different terminology, referring to the practice as holding credits ‘in reserve,’ and restricts it to ‘state electives,’ the district essentially engages in the same process that SISD engaged in until July 18, 2012,” the audit said of McAllen, referring to the enrollment process document.
Lopez said the district wants to be transparent and “out of an abundance of caution” has ordered the performance review of the processes it uses to classify students in response to the audit’s allegations, which were first reported by the El Paso Times. Lopez is leading the investigation. He said neither he nor his law firm has ties to the district, but he did graduate from McAllen Memorial High School in 1992.
EL PASO SCANDAL
Former El Paso Independent School District Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia and others worked to keep certain students out of 10th grade, keeping them from completing federal testing during that grade level. Eventually, test scores rose and so did the amount of federal money for the district under the No Child Left Behind law.
In 2012, Garcia pleaded guilty to several charges, becoming the nation’s first superintendent to be convicted of bogus test scores and fraud for financial gain, National Public Radio reported.
According to the audit, in El Paso students were placed in ninth grade regardless of their age and, in some cases, did not enroll or quit when they found out about the policy, the audit said.
“All in all, it is difficult to view these practices as providing real, or even potential benefits to students,” the audit read, adding this should place scrutiny on benefits it might bring to the district. “Obviously, removing these students from the federal accountability system by ‘skipping’ grade 10 is an additional benefit that must be considered.”
The practice at SISD didn’t account for variations among students or Mexican schools, the report said.
“Such a one-size-fits-all view of immigrant students from Mexico is a significant barrier to providing the best program and support for these students,” it read.
The audit noted the Texas Education Agency has investigated other El Paso-area school districts for similar practices and that those districts have discontinued the process.
“Clearly, from the TEA reports of its investigations of the El Paso, Canutillo, and San Elizario ISDs, and the (U.S. Department of Education) report of its investigation of EPISD, neither federal nor state officials approve of it,” the audit states.