Phila. district says claims of cheating at two schools unfounded

Posted: July 08, 2011

Philadelphia School District officials said Thursday that an internal investigation concluded that allegations of state test-score cheating at two schools were unfounded.

But a state legislator wants to see the full reports on alleged testing improprieties at Roosevelt Middle School and FitzSimons High, and wants the state's education secretary to review the district's investigation.

State Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.) said he was prompted by The Inquirer's report of alleged test-tampering at the two schools, and by recent news of a cheating scandal in the Atlanta public schools, where authorities found systematic cheating, pressure on teachers to participate, and a "major failure of leadership" in the district, according to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.

"The credibility of our education system depends on reliable and accurate testing of our students," McGeehan wrote in a letter to Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis.

Tim Eller, a spokesman for Tomalis, said Thursday that the secretary had not yet received the letter. Eller did not respond to requests to release the Roosevelt and FitzSimons reports or detail any guidelines the department gives districts for investigating cheating.

This spring, multiple Roosevelt teachers told The Inquirer they questioned a remarkable rise in scores on the Pennsylvania System of Standards Assessment, or PSSA. The teachers said that a 52-point jump in reading and a 51-point jump in math between 2008-09 and 2009-10 was achieved through breaches in test security.

The teachers said they witnessed numerous improprieties, from test answers written on a blackboard to senior staff's encouraging teachers to drill concepts they knew appeared on the exam. The Roosevelt teachers said they also saw administrators giving students books so they could correct wrong answers.

Another teacher also talked about a breach at FitzSimons. The teacher said staff there were given test booklets to review in advance and encouraged to drill their students on concepts that would be tested, a violation of security. The teacher brought a 2011 PSSA test booklet into The Inquirer newsroom before the test was given.

A spokeswoman described the district's monitoring system as "robust," and said it includes training in test protocol and random visits of 75 percent of all schools during PSSAs.

One teacher who witnessed testing improprieties and asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal said the district's conclusions were "disgusting."

The teacher also criticized the district for transferring the school's principal, Stefanie Ressler, to Wilson Middle, a higher-achieving school that's considered a better assignment. Her transfer was decided before the investigation was completed.

A veteran educator, Ressler has been praised by the district for increasing test scores and reducing violence at Roosevelt.

District investigators interviewed the teacher, who described breaches witnessed this year and last, including students being allowed to finish sections of the test they had not had time to complete. The teacher also reported seeing students in the library grouped around a table with test booklets and answer sheets out, chatting openly with the administrator and among themselves.

"I told them everything," the teacher said.

Another teacher, also interviewed by district investigators, was floored at the news that the Roosevelt allegations were deemed unfounded.

"That is outrageous," the teacher said. "Unbelievable. After I talked to the investigators, I said, 'There's no way they're going to be able to say this is unfounded.' What we all said was pretty damning."

An Inquirer analysis of the school's data revealed a number of discrepancies between PSSA results and other measurements of student performance, including report card grades and "benchmark" tests.

McGeehan, a frequent critic of the district and Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, said he's not convinced the district's investigation is enough.

"I've expressed my cynicism about these self-directed probes of the school district's," he said. "I want to know from the secretary what were the parameters of the investigation and who was interviewed."

He said erasure analysis, which was used to determine cheating in Atlanta, might be warranted. That method analyzes the amount of wrong answers erased and changed to correct answers.

"We need a more detached eye," he said.

McGeehan said he found "troubling parallels" to the Atlanta case.


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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