A Texas border school district ex-administrator pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government for his involvement in a widespread, long-term standardized test cheating scandal.
Damon Murphy, former El Paso Independent School District associate superintendent, admitted Friday to defrauding the U.S. Department of Education by artificially inflating federally required student accountability scores announced U.S. Attorney Richard L. Durbin, Jr., in the Western District of Texas. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) investigated the case.
By pleading guilty, Murphy, 50, acknowledged his role in an elaborate ruse that took place between February 2006 to September 2013 to violate the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. El Paso ISD submitted fraudulent Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) data to the Texas Education Agency and USDE to make it look as though it met or exceeded this requirement. AYP measured student English Language Arts/reading and math testing performance, attendance, and graduation rates. Success meant 95 percent of students tested met minimum annual targets in these areas.
For his part, in 2008-09, Murphy gave El Paso ISD high school principals “marching orders” to “put up barriers” to prevent ninth grade students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and others perceived as “at risk” of performing poorly on standardized testing from moving onto 10th grade.
Murphy and others implemented a plan using 10th grade partial course credits to reclassify those held-back students and promote them to the 11th grade. In essence, they skipped from ninth to 11th grade, bypassing then mandated Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), the testing tool administered in the 10th grade to track AYP. The scheme made the district appear as if they met or exceeded state and federal standards and disguised which El Paso ISD campuses were failing. Schools and districts that did not meet or exceed AYP standards and continued to “need improvement,” or failed at the end of five years, could face sanctions, state takeover, closure, reconstitution, or repurposing into public charter schools.
Murphy faces up to five years in federal prison, a fine of $250,000, and supervised release that can last three years. Presently, he remains free on bond. KVIA reported his sentencing date as April 4. Murphy declined to speak with media outside the courtroom on Friday, although he told reporters: “I hope this brings some semblance of closure to the community, the students, and the families.”
Four years ago, the district’s alleged cheating scandal mastermind, former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, voluntarily relinquished his teaching credentials and pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to defraud the state and the feds in making El Paso ISD appear compliant with NCLB. He served 42 months in prison, received three years supervised release, and was fined $180,000 in restitution, the El Paso Times reported. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons shortened his sentence by 11 months for participating in a drug-counseling program. Garcia was released in 2014.
The Texas Education Agency took unprecedented action against those El Paso ISD employees allegedly involved in the testing hoax. Two years ago, the agency filed a 60-page petition charging the district with violating portions of Title 19 of the Texas Administration Code.
Murphy was one of five El Paso ISD former officials arrested in late April. A sixth, James Anderson, an ex-assistant superintendent, later surrendered to authorities. Murphy’s co-defendants remain under a six-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed in April 2016. They include four former Austin High School administrators John Tanner, Mark Phillip Tegmeyer, Diane Thomas, assistant principal; and Nancy Love. Jury selection for the trial begins on February 13.
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