A laurel to Zahira Torres and the El Paso Times

Dogged investigative work exposed a test-score scandal that harmed students

AUSTIN, TX — In El Paso, the former school superintendent is now in prison, the Justice Department is investigating, and more school officials are being fired—all the fallout of a widespread cheating scandal in which top educators tried to game standardized test scores so they could collect undeserved bonuses.

That scandal came to light thanks to years of dogged reporting by Zahira Torres and the support of her former editor at the El Paso Times. The work of Torres and the Times has triggered investigations, sparked legislative measures that might help children whose education was harmed, and garnered a passel of journalistic honors—including this laurel from CJR, for proving that even in times of shrinking newsrooms, hard-hitting investigations remain not just possible, but vital.

The story began to get Torres’s interest nearly three years ago, in 2010, when state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh abruptly accused the school district of gaming standardized tests to improve its performance. As the Austin correspondent for the Times, Torres was buried with legislative and political assignments, but she made note of the allegation and decided to circle back around after she cleared her decks.

Torres started filing open records requests with the El Paso Independent School District in 2011; the district, she said in an interview, stalled by saying it would cost tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of dollars to fulfill her requests. The paper couldn’t spend that kind of money. But editor Robert Moore kept giving Torres a little time, here and there, to investigate even as she attended to her regular duties in Austin.

Torres kept digging, and in November, 2011 she found a document indicating that the information she had requested had previously been supplied to the Texas Education Agency in Austin. A month-long battle ensued, the state attorney general weighed in, and Torres and the paper finally obtained the paper trail they had been looking for all along. But now they had to go against the grain; the TEA had already cleared the school district of wrongdoing, and people in the community questioned why the Times was still after the story.

“People in the community thought, ‘Why are you still doing this?” said Torres, who recently started work as an education reporter for The Denver Post. “Why are you picking on a school district when everything is okay?”

What she uncovered proved that her dogged pursuit of the story was more than justified. While cheating scandals elsewhere—notably in Atlanta—have often involved altering test answers and fabricating results, the scandal in El Paso unfolded differently. Students who were not proficient in English were “disappeared,” dropped from high schools altogether or discouraged from enrolling in an effort to boost test performance. At least three high schools, all with large enrollments of Hispanic students, were at the center of the scandal. (You can see Storify timelines, assembled by Torres, of the scandal and the investigation here and here.) Torres—herself a product of Burgess High School in El Paso—says that someone like her, Hispanic and from a Spanish-speaking household, could easily have been dumped out of the public school system.

“I would have been one of those kids,” she said.

Today, the fallout continues as more top educators are being rounded up and fired or not having their contracts renewed. The Texas Education Agency has put the entire school district into conservatorship. The U.S. Justice Department is considering removing the entire school board. And former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia is doing a three-and-a-half year stretch in a federal prison. (In addition to the cheating scandal, during which he collected more than $56,000 in bonuses, Garcia was convicted of steering a $450,000 no-bid contract to a girlfriend.) Meanwhile, the state legislature is considering measures to help the students who were “disappeared” to finish their high school educations.

For their part, Torres and the Times have won awards from Governing magazine and the Education Writers Association. Torres recently received the Charles E. Green Investigative Report award, and the paper swept the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors’ honors. Even as she adjusts from sunny Austin to the snow still flying in Denver, Torres says that the awards are appreciated, but there’s still more work to be done on the story. And the Times, she says, is probably going to keep after it, perhaps by looking at cheating scandals elsewhere.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘How could this happen? They were in the business to educate children and to try to move them forward and this was the exact opposite,” she says. “Awards are nice and it brings attention to the issue, but I think more importantly these were kids who got kicked out of the system who didn’t get a proper education.”

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker. Tags: , , ,