EL PASO, Texas It sounded at first like a familiar story: School administrators, seeking to meet state and federal standards, fraudulently raised students' scores on crucial exams.
But in the cheating scandal that has shaken the 64,000-student school district in this border city, administrators manipulated more than numbers. They are accused of keeping low-performing students out of classrooms altogether by improperly holding some back, accelerating others and preventing many from showing up for the tests or enrolling in school at all.
It led to a dramatic moment at the federal courthouse this month, when a former schools superintendent, Lorenzo Garcia, was sentenced to prison for his role in orchestrating the testing scandal.
But for students and parents, the case did not end there. A federal investigation continues, with the likelihood of more arrests of administrators who helped Garcia.
Federal prosecutors charged Garcia, 57, with devising an elaborate program to inflate test scores to improve the performance of struggling schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and to allow him to collect annual bonuses for meeting district goals.
The scheme, elements of which were carried out for most of Garcia's nearly six-year tenure, centered on a state-mandated test taken by sophomores. Known as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, it measures performance in reading, mathematics and other subjects.
The scheme's objective was to keep low-performing students out of the classroom so they would not take the test and drag scores down, according to prosecutors, former principals and school advocates.
Students identified as low-performing were transferred to charter schools, discouraged from enrolling in school or were visited at home by truant officers and told not to go to school on the test day. For some, credits were deleted from transcripts or grades were changed from passing to failing or from failing to passing so they could be reclassified as freshmen or juniors.
Others intentionally held back were allowed to catch up before graduation with "turbo-mesters," in which students earned a semester's worth of credit for a few hours of computer work.
A former high school principal said in an interview and in court that one student earned two semester credits in three hours on the last day of school.
Still other students who transferred to the district from Mexico were automatically put in the ninth grade, even if they had earned credits for the 10th grade, to keep them from taking the test.
"He essentially treated these students as pawns in a scheme to make it look as though he was achieving the thresholds he needed for his bonuses," said Robert Pitman, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, whose office prosecuted Garcia.
Another former principal, Lionel Rubio, said he knew of six students who had been pushed out of high school and had not pursued an education since.
In 2008, Linda Hernandez-Romero's daughter repeated her freshman year at Bowie High School after administrators told her she was not allowed to return as a sophomore. Hernandez-Romero said administrators told her that her daughter was not doing well academically and was not likely to perform well on the test.
Hernandez-Romero protested the decision, but she said her daughter never followed through with her education, never received a diploma or a GED and now, at age 21, has three children, is jobless and survives on welfare.
"Her decisions have been very negative after this," her mother said. "She always tells me: 'Mom, I got kicked out of school because I wasn't smart. I guess I'm not, Mom, look at me.' There's not a way of expressing how bad it feels, because it's so bad. Seeing one of your children fail and knowing that it was not all her doing is worse."
The program was known as "the Bowie model," and Garcia had boasted of his success in raising test scores, particularly in 2008, when all of the district's eligible campuses earned a rating of "academically acceptable" or better from the state.
But parents and students had another name for what was happening: "los desaparecidos," or the disappeared.
State education data showed that 381 students were enrolled as freshmen at Bowie in the fall of 2007. The following fall, the sophomore class was 170 students. Dozens of the missing students had "disappeared" through Garcia's program, said Eliot Shapleigh, a lawyer and former state senator who began his own investigation into testing misconduct and was credited with bringing the case to light. Shapleigh said he believed that hundreds of students were affected and that district leaders had failed to do enough to locate and help them.
"Desaparecidos is by far the worst education scandal in the country," Shapleigh said.
Court documents list six unindicted co-conspirators who assisted Garcia, but they have not been publicly identified. Parents and educators believe that several of those involved in the scandal continue to work in the system or have taken jobs at nearby districts.
The El Paso district, meanwhile, has had trouble keeping its leaders, with the board of trustees appointing three interim superintendents since Garcia's arrest last year.
Garcia's program led to an inquiry involving three federal entities: the FBI, Pitman's office and the Education Department's inspector general. The state's education agency penalized the district in August by lowering its accreditation status, assigning a monitor and requiring it to hire outside companies to oversee testing and identify the structural defects that allowed the scheme to go unchecked.
Last Wednesday, the newly appointed commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Michael Williams, came to El Paso to speak with parents and administrators, telling them he had the power to take other steps, including installing a new board of trustees.
"I'm outraged by what happened," Williams said. "We're going to give the district an opportunity to right the ship. And if that doesn't happen, then obviously there are several options available to the commissioner of education, and I'll look very, very carefully at those options."
Garcia was the first superintendent in the country to be charged with manipulating data used to assess compliance with No Child Left Behind for financial gain, the authorities said.
In June, Garcia pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. One charge was connected to the scandal, and the other involved his efforts to secure a $450,000 no-bid contract for a consulting firm run by his former mistress. He was sentenced to three years and six months in federal prison and was ordered to pay $180,000 in restitution to the district.
He was also fined $56,500, the amount of testing-related bonuses he had received.