'Compelling' evidence of cheating in many Phila. schools

Cayuga Elementary School in Hunting Park. The principal there has denied allegations of pressuring staff to alter test answers.
Cayuga Elementary School in Hunting Park. The principal there has denied allegations of pressuring staff to alter test answers. (ALEX REMNICK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2012

Make no mistake, the state's top education official said: The cases against 53 Philadelphia public schools and three city charter schools - 56 in all - now under investigation for possible cheating on state achievement tests are very strong.

"The data is pretty compelling," Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis said of the Philadelphia schools and dozens more statewide that have come under scrutiny for irregularities in the tests, known as PSSAs. "These don't seem to be random acts that are just a student erasing more than the norm."

The Philadelphia School District declined to release the schools under investigation for possible improprieties on the 2009, 2010, and 2011 PSSAs, but The Inquirer has obtained a copy of the list.

The 53 Philadelphia district schools being investigated - one in five of all district schools - come from every part of the city. They span every grade level. Some even bear the Philadelphia School District's designation for its highest-achieving schools - "vanguards," which receive flexibility in curriculum and budgeting.

Eleven of the 25 Vanguard schools - 44 percent - are on the list, including Cayuga Elementary School in Hunting Park, where numerous staff members, teachers, and even a student have told The Inquirer they witnessed widespread cheating on state exams over several years. The principal has said she did nothing wrong.

In some schools, the evidence of cheating "is not isolated or limited exposure," Tomalis said in an Inquirer interview, adding that the state and the district must take "more aggressive action."

With a new round of PSSAs set to begin Monday, extraordinary security measures have been imposed on city schools, including requiring teachers administering the tests to sign statements acknowledging that criminal penalties may be sought if wrongdoing is found.

State monitors will be inside many city schools suspected of cheating during the PSSAs. Citywide, teachers have also been barred from administering their own students' exams.

Of the 56 schools under investigation, 11 "Tier One" schools are subject to the most scrutiny, with investigations handled by the Pennsylvania Inspector General's Office.

In the Tier One schools, evidence of cheating indicates the manipulation was not isolated to individual grades or subjects. They are: Cayuga, Emlen, Forrest, and Locke Elementary Schools; Clemente and Roosevelt Middle Schools; and Bok, Communications Tech, Frankford, Martin Luther King, and Northeast High Schools.

An additional 20 Tier Two schools, where improprieties appear to be isolated to one grade or subject level, are being investigated by the school district, with assistance from the state; 22 Tier Three schools' data are being reviewed by the state. Those schools could be cleared, or moved to a higher tier.

Three city charters, Philadelphia Electrical and Technology, Imhotep, and Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners, are also under investigation by the state. Charters are public schools but not run by the district.

'It's glaring'

The statewide investigation - which has spanned eight months so far and is likely to go on for several more - has involved officials from the Department of Education, the Inspector General's Office, and investigators from individual districts.

In the most serious cases, including Philadelphia's, the evidence "is pointing in the direction of manipulation across grades, subject areas, across years - it's glaring," said a source with knowledge of the investigation. "Does that mean a principal got up in front of her faculty of 40 teachers and said, 'We're all going to cheat?' Or did teachers spend a weekend with the tests and fix things? That's why it requires further investigation."

The Inquirer first began reporting about cheating last May, when teachers at Roosevelt Middle School in East Germantown said their school's remarkable test score gains were achieved in part through cheating.

A short time later, a state-commissioned analysis of the 2009 PSSA surfaced, identifying a suspicious pattern of erasures at schools statewide.

At that time, the Education Department asked the district to investigate 28 schools based on the analysis. In August of last year, the district held a news conference and announced that it was confident that only 13 required further examination, officials said.

Based on the strong evidence of the 2009 data, the state had already ordered similar analyses of the 2010 and 2011 PSSAs and began the investigation that has placed 56 city schools under the microscope.

Some schools, such as Northeast High, were part of the original 28 before being cleared by the district. Northeast is now listed as a Tier 1 investigation.

The pressure to perform well on achievement tests is intense.

State tests such as the PSSA determine whether schools make "Adequate Yearly Progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Failing to make AYP over several years could trigger school closure.

In recent years, cheating scandals have rocked the Atlanta and Washington school systems, where federal officials eventually got involved.

The U.S. Department of Education is not examining the Pennsylvania problem - yet. Although officials are quick to point out that the vast majority of schools and teachers act with integrity, there's evidence that cheating on state tests has been widespread.

The state investigation has been exhaustive, said the source with knowledge of the inquiry. Pennsylvania grades an average of 1.9 million tests, and officials used sophisticated equipment that can detect the most minute grain of an eraser mark to scrutinize them.

At first, students who erased five times or more were flagged. Then, the state looked at classrooms, flagging those where at least 20 percent had five or more erasures.

"In some classes, there were 15, 20, 25 erasures per PSSA. And by and large, 85 percent of them were only going from wrong to right," the source said. "It's not a coincidence."

There were also instances when students had multiple erasures on the reading and math PSSA but none on the science portion - whose results, unlike those of reading and math, do not count toward AYP.

Officials believe that in all but five instances involving districts and charters across the state, the cheating was limited to isolated individuals, the source said.

But in the case of Philadelphia's and Hazleton's school districts and Imhotep, Philadelphia Electrical and Technology, and Chester Community Charter, state officials believe the problem was more widespread.

Hazleton schools will have the same sort of security measures as Philadelphia when PSSAs begin Monday, state officials say.

Officials haven't yet identified the full scope of the problem in Philadelphia, a source said.

Schools across the state - including many in Philadelphia - were cleared because their statistical anomalies were explained satisfactorily.

But some seem to have no good explanations. When the state analysis began to point to districts and charters with serious problems, officials then brought in school leaders to help the state identify where manipulation may have occurred.

"Superintendents and other school leaders have been cooperating with us, for the most part," Tomalis said in the interview. "Their reaction, I am pleased to see, has been the level of concern that I would hope to see in public education officials in Pennsylvania."

Philadelphia officials, Tomalis said, have been cooperative. The results now under scrutiny occurred during the administration of Arlene C. Ackerman, who has since left the district. The School Reform Commission, which oversees city schools, is also mostly new.

Last week, the SRC appointed David Adamany, the former president of Temple University, as an unpaid "testing integrity coordinator."

"I'm confident in the leadership exhibited by the SRC and the leadership of the district, that they take this seriously, that they don't have a tolerance for this behavior," Tomalis said. "They are putting a lot of energy into making sure this situation is addressed and not repeated."

Now that the inquiries are well under way, "some teachers are being cooperative," the source said. "Some folks are pointing to the principal. And that might be true, the principal instructed them to cheat, but just because someone tells you to rob the bank doesn't mean you rob the bank."

In some cases, the source said, "teachers are banding together and saying, 'We don't know what's going on.' We think they're sitting there saying, 'Either we all go down together, or we don't,' " the source said. "It takes a lot of time and legwork, but the data is still there."

In some instances, students have even come forward to identify adults they said cheated, the source said.

Patterns

With one in five of all Philadelphia schools now under investigation for possible cheating, some patterns emerge.

Nearly half - 11 of 25 - of the district's "vanguards," or high-achieving schools, are now under investigation. Those are Cayuga, Conwell, A.B. Day, Decatur, Emlen, F.S. Edmonds, Loesche, John Marshall, Pollock, Wagner, and Welsh.

Some of the numbers are eyebrow-raising.

The tests taken at F.S. Edmonds in 2009 were flagged in each grade on a combined 11 different forensic measures, for instance. The analysis earmarked the exams of 45 students for unexpected erasure patterns.

Another Vanguard school, Emlen in East Mount Airy, showed elevated grade-level erasures on tests taken in 2009. Each grade was marked as suspicious for both math and reading. In most cases, the chance that the levels of erasure occurred naturally was far less than 1 in 100 million.

Vanguard school Wagner Middle received 16 flags by forensic investigators studying the 2009 exams. The suspicious outcomes appeared in both subjects and each grade, most alarmingly in eighth grade, where grade-level erasures were astronomical. Forty-eight students who took the eighth-grade exams handed in tests with unexpectedly high levels of erasures.

Penny Nixon, now the district's chief academic officer, was Wagner's principal in 2009. She has said that she has no firsthand knowledge of improprieties at her former school but that if any are found, the school will be dealt with like any other.

The stakes are high for the coming PSSAs.

There has always been monitoring for the exams, said Fran Newberg, Philadelphia's deputy chief of accountability and educational technology. But more precautions are being taken this year. District officials said they were doing so to ensure that the 2012 PSSA results are on the level.

For the first time this year, Tier One schools will have a "complete embargo," Newberg said, with test materials out of the school's hands, distributed by a monitor just before the test begins and collected immediately after they are finished.

"We can have confidence in our test results," Newberg said. "We can have confidence across the board in the integrity of the administration. We're taking it very seriously."

Also new this year is the new "test security certification" that teachers administering the test had to sign. This state document read, in part, "I understand that any breach in assessment security could result in the invalidation of assessment results, professional discipline, and/or criminal prosecution."

For those caught cheating on the 2009, 2010, or 2011 tests, penalties could include losing their professional licenses permanently.

But if a teacher or principal with information shares it with investigators, "I'm sure that would come into play as far as the final ramifications go," Tomalis said.

He agreed that the new security measures should help ensure that the 2012 PSSAs accurately reflect student achievement.

"This is a very serious issue," the education secretary said. "The person who gets shortchanged in this, more than anyone, is the student."


For Information On Cheating

The Philadelphia School District has set up a PSSA Testing Integrity tip line. It is 215-400-PSSA (7772).

The district is looking for outside attorneys to volunteer to help it investigate possible cheating inside some schools. To volunteer,

call 215-400-5648.

Teachers or administrators with questions about PSSA administration can call 215-400-4250.

The state has also set up a PSSA "integrity hotline" for teachers

with information about cheating at their school. It is 855-448-2435.


For an interactive map on schools under investigation for possible cheating, including standardized test results from 2007 through 2011, go to www.philly.com/

cheatingprobe.


Contact 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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