CISD board urges fed. officials to examine high-stakes testing in border communities

CISD Testing

EL PASO, Texas - The Canutillo Independent School District board of trustees are frustrated.

"When looking at the state and federal testing system and the way it's currently set up, it's a big disadvantage for those individuals who come from out of country," said board president Armando Rodriguez. "Having to take a test like that within one year, it's difficult and it doesn't do justice to the educational system."

On Jan. 23, Rodriguez detailed board's frustration in a two-page letter to U.S. Department of Education secretary Arne Duncan:

Rodriguez states, "We are certain you are aware of the recent testing and student management issues facing El Paso, Texas and similarly situated border communities...(we) are faced with a regular influx of students with a variety of learning challenges created by language barriers. We strive to do our best to educate all children within our community. Unfortunately, the current system of testing and accountability measures creates a situation where some individuals attempt to cheat or "game" the system."

In December, internal audit findings revealed possible attempts by former superintendent Doctor Damon Murphy to cheat on state and federal accountability measures.

When the board voted to buy out Murphy's contract with the district, Rodriguez said, trustees were prompted to reevaluate the culture of high-stakes testing in schools.

"When the board looked at (testing), we said, 'let's put ourselves in this situation'. Imagine we go to Italy or some other country and we go into their school system and within that one year we're going to have to be tested on an accountability measure that says you're going to succeed in life or not."

After more than a month of consideration, the board resolved to reach out to Secretary Duncan with a letter they forwarded to numerous elected officials, including President Barack Obama and Freshman Congressman Beto O'Rourke.   

"I tend to agree that no child left behind is a well intentioned nobel effort thats been an absolute disaster in it's implementation Whether you're looking at the El Paso Independent School District or Canutillo ISD or school districts across the country are focused far too tightly on standardized testing," said O'Rourke.

Monday, O'Rourke said neither his office in Washington, D.C. or in El Paso had received the letter. Upon reading it for the first time, O'Rourke said while he agreed with the letter's overall sentiment, he took issue with two main points.

"What gives me a little pause is this idea that El Paso should somehow be treated different then the rest of the country," said O'Rourke, "That because of our student populations because of our large first generation immigrant communities we should be gauged or judged on a different level, I really don't like that."

He continued, "The other concern i have in reading that letter is, it seems to indicate that some of the cheating that we've seen happened in EPISD, some of which was connected with leadership in Canutillo ISD can be blamed on standardized tests and i don't think that's the case. People made bad decisions."

Murphy, who has worked in the education field more than 20 years, worked at EPISD for four years as Associate Superintendent for Secondary and Priority Schools.

In April, EPISD revealed that a federal investigation had uncovered a four-year-old email from Murphy's account that gave principals and administrators a directive to make incoming foreign high schoolers and high school freshmen be placed in ninth grade even if they deserved to be placed higher than the ninth grade.

"I have no comment about what happened two years ago in a different district. I have no idea what Dr. (Terri) Jordan put forth in that press conference," Murphy told ABC-7 in May at a Canutillo ISD board meeting.

"Ladies and gentleman, that is a stunning and deeply troubling directive from a former top official of this school district," Dr. Terri Jordan said in a statement in April, while she was interim superintendent of EPISD. "The email directive from Murphy is especially troubling when considered in light of the district's own internal audit and the ongoing federal investigation into whether students were improperly retained in ninth grade or promoted to the 11th grade to avoid being tested in 10th grade and counted as part of the school's rating Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind education law."

In 2012 EPISD's former superintendent, Lorenzo Garcia, pleaded guilty to steering an expensive, no-bid district contract to his then mistress. He also pleaded guilty to manipulating the district's test scores by not allowing who he perceived as low performing students to enroll or forcing them to skip or be held back a grade. Garcia would get bonuses when the district met state and federal standards that included passing the tests.

"You have a system that's created in Texas and then brought in as a model for the federal system...and minority students are getting effected," said Rodriguez. "It has some serious consequences. It makes students second guess continuing getting their diploma or should they go and get a GED or should they just drop out and go into the workforce," said Rodriguez. "It has to be addressed from all of our policy makers."

O'Rourke agreed, "We owe ourselves a discussion and hopefully a new policy as it relates to standardized testing,"

O'Rourke said he's pressing officials within the Department of Education to release an audit into cheating at EPISD that, he said, has been two years outstanding.

"I spoke to folks involved in that audit and they have promised me that we'll see the results of that audit this spring...we can then use the findings in that audit to implement best practices to try and prevent this sort of thing from happening again."

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