The former principal and a computer technician at a Houston high school will have their salaries docked based on an outside investigation that blames them and others for allowing inaccurate reporting of student dropout data for the 2002-2003 school year.

The incident raises serious implications for school district employees nationwide, particularly as the No Child Left Behind Act ushers in a new era of accountability in America’s schools.

Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, who noticed dropout rates at schools in his district seemed lower than reality, filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency (TEA). His complaint led to a state audit that found more than a dozen of the district’s schools had undercounted dropouts.

Former Sharpstown High School Principal Carol Wichmann, who retired in August, will have the amount she would have received from the district upon retirement lowered by two weeks, and the school’s technician, Kenneth Cuadra, will be put on unpaid leave for two weeks and reassigned to another school, the district said in a statement.

For school administrators and technology personnel alike, the penalties serve as a stark reminder of the seriousness with which educators must approach the collection and reporting of reliable data.

“The Sharpstown investigation found that while no specific directive contributed to reporting of low dropouts, a climate existed at the school that tolerated the reporting of unrealistic dropout rates,” Superintendent Kaye Stripling said in a statement disclosing findings of the outside investigation by a Houston law firm. “HISD [the Houston Independent School District] and the public will not tolerate the reporting of inaccurate data–these actions make that clear.”

The firm’s report found that Sharpstown administrators poorly supervised employees and inadequately trained them, tolerated unrealistic dropout reports, had lax internal controls, and “focused more on their own lack of accountability than how to solve an important problem.”

It also said school administrators had doubts about the accuracy of the reports but did nothing to confirm whether figures given to the TEA were accurate.

According to the report, those doubts were expressed on a number of occasions, including several documented eMail messages. One such message sent to Wichmann from Janet Nolte, manager of the district’s Department of State and Federal Compliance, stated, “I find it a little difficult to think that [in] a school with 74.7 percent of the students at risk … there would be no dropouts.”

Although Wichmann later admitted the results were suspect, she said administrators were not aware of any unreported dropouts and that officials were confident they had tracked every student.

Cuadra appealed his sanctions on the grounds that he had tried to warn district officials of the error, but his appeal was denied after a hearing determined he erroneously changed the dropout codes of 30 Sharpstown students and did not take adequate action to correct the mistake.

Cuadra said he corrected the dropout codes, but investigators said they found no evidence to support his claims. Computer logs showed that Cuadra–one of two administrators authorized to change the codes–was the only user logged onto the system during all of the dates in question.

Although it was suggested that Cuadra might have been pressured to alter dropout rates so various personnel–including the principal and superintendent–would receive incentive money from the state for reporting zero dropouts, investigators were unable to determine whether he or any other authorized administrator changed the dropout rates specifically to mislead state officials.

The report did state, however, that school leaders–including Wichmann–committed ethical violations by creating an environment in which misreporting data was tolerated and, in some cases, even encouraged.

Besides Wichmann and Cuadra, HISD said it would place letters of reprimand in the files of three assistant principals and West District Superintendent Anne Patterson.

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Houston Independent School District