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In Texas, They Hire the Fox To Watch the Henhouse

A state representative has asked the Texas Education Agency to investigate allegations that the Houston Independent School District intentionally falsified the dropout rate at Sharpstown High School.

Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, said recent stories by KHOU Channel 11 alleging that school employees knew false data was reported cried out for a state investigation of how all HISD schools tally their dropouts.

He met Thursday in Austin with TEA Commissioner Felipe Alanis, who Noriega said assured him the agency would look into the matter.

HISD has launched an internal review, but Noriega said that was not enough.

"You've got the fox watching the hen house when they say they're looking into it themselves," Noriega said Thursday. "It would bring more credibility to the system to have it looked at externally."

Intentionally altering government documents is a felony, Noriega said, and he wants TEA to find the HISD officials responsible for reporting zero dropouts at Sharpstown. HISD has acknowledged that report was incorrect but said it hadn't found evidence of deliberate misconduct.

District spokeswoman Heather Browne said HISD is also in the middle of a TEA-mandated audit of all its dropout records. That audit is required of all school districts and is being conducted for HISD by an outside firm, she said.

"Certainly we welcome Representative Noriega's suggestion and any further review of our records," Browne said.

Adrienne Sobolak, TEA spokeswoman, said Noriega's complaint was the first she knew of that the agency had received since the allegations against Sharpstown were made.

"Since this information has come to light, we do consider it very important and we are definitely going to look into it," she said.

Because a school's dropout rate is a factor in setting its state accountability rating, a finding of errors at Sharpstown could affect that school's rating as well as the district as a whole, she added. If misconduct is found, the school could be assigned a state monitor.

Noriega said the underreporting of dropouts at Sharpstown is indicative of a larger problem the Legislature might have to address.

"It appears there are other high schools in the system constantly reporting zero dropouts," he said. "That in itself should have been a red flag for the TEA. I think that we owe it to our kids primarily, but the taxpayers as well, that we have an accurate portrayal of what's going on."

The accountability ratings give schools an incentive to falsely report fewer dropouts, Noriega said, and the TEA must ensure the data's accuracy.

— Lucas Wall
TEA is asked to probe claims of falsified data
Houston Chronicle
Feb. 28, 2003


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