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Rio District Under Fire

Four schools excluded Spanish speakers from part of state tests, allegedly to skew rankings. Former chief denies any wrongdoing.

June 25, 2003|Sandra Murillo and Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writers

The troubled Rio Elementary School District excluded a significant number of Spanish-speaking students from a key language portion of state achievement tests given at four schools last year, raising questions about whether there was a deliberate attempt by administrators to skew the schools' overall performance, according to state officials.

In a June 18 letter to former Supt. Yolanda Benitez, state education officials say a high percentage of second-, third- and fourth-grade students in the largely Latino district in Oxnard did not take the "language expression" section of the Stanford 9 and California standards-based tests.

"We are very concerned that students may have been selectively excluded from testing in some schools," wrote William L. Padia, director of the state Department of Education's Policy and Evaluation Division. "This has the effect of undermining state and national efforts to include all students in the accountability system."

Interim Supt. Patrick Faverty said the state's findings mean the affected schools' 2002 Academic Performance Index -- which is based on those test scores -- would have to be thrown out. The API, a public ranking of schools, determines eligibility for state awards and sanctions tied to academic achievement. Affected are El Rio, Rio Real, Rio del Norte and Rio Plaza elementary schools.

"I have to tell you I'm in some state of shock, frankly," Faverty said. "It's an incredibly high number of invalid scores. I've never seen anything like this."

Faverty said he doesn't know whether the exclusion of students -- who were primarily English-language learners -- was deliberate. But that doesn't change the fact that the test was administered improperly, he said.

Benitez, who was fired earlier this month amid allegations that she improperly pushed pro-bilingual education programs, said Tuesday that she trusts her staff followed state guidelines when administering the standardized tests.

"As a superintendent, I have to trust my people," Benitez said. She said David Lopez, assistant superintendent, is on vacation this week and needs an opportunity to review the data.

"He follows all the regulations as set by laws and test companies

Some school district officials, however, say the state's letter is further proof that Benitez manipulated test results to promote a pro-bilingual agenda.

One of the 15 charges against Benitez was that she instructed teachers and administrators to remove tests from bilingual students before they were finished, for the purposes of creating false statistics.

"We were right all along," said school board President Ron Mosqueda, one of three board members who voted to fire Benitez. "I am convinced that this was irresponsible, whether it was maliciously done or if she just failed to do her job. The bottom line is she failed."

Benitez's lawyers have called the allegation absurd. In the legal response to the charges, Benitez said the school's administrators were following suggested guidelines outlined by test developers and state education representatives that allow Spanish speakers to opt out of the English portion of the test.

But Padia said the invalid scores are over and above the number of students who may have opted out of the test.

"These are kids who took part of the test, but just not that one section," he said.

The Rio district is among nearly 50 California districts that had similar problems with that section of the test, Padia said. But the other affected districts had only one school with problems, rather than the four that Rio had. In the other districts, officials said, the problems were because teachers had inadvertently missed the section when giving the exam.

Padia said state officials routinely review test-score data to look for irregularities, then ask the local district to figure out what happened.

"We have to do this kind of analysis to keep everyone on their toes," Padia said. "In a case where it seems like deliberate manipulation of the students, that's a different problem."

Rio school board attorney Martha Torgow said the district will probably respond by informing the state that it is aware of the problem and is working to rectify the situation.

The district has until Friday to file its response.

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