Detailed oversight as city students take the PSSA tests

Sealed PSSA exams at one Philadelphia public school, where officials imposed test-security measures. KRISTEN A. GRAHAM / Staff
Sealed PSSA exams at one Philadelphia public school, where officials imposed test-security measures. KRISTEN A. GRAHAM / Staff (Sealed PSSA exams)
Posted: March 16, 2012

A third-floor classroom door was shut tight, its windows sealed off with black construction paper. Inside, a small group of students were taking state exams.

Daniel Piotrowski zoomed in. What was going on in there? Were the tests being administered according to protocol? He swung open the door.

"Any room I see that has a closed door or a window covered, I'm going in," said Piotrowski, the Philadelphia School District's accountability and assessment director.

After a few minutes in the room, Piotrowski saw that things were on the up-and-up, and he moved on. It was just part of his job as one of more than 100 district monitors charged with deterring cheating on the state reading and math exams being taken this week and next in city schools.

It's labor-intensive, unglamorous work. But officials say it's necessary to ensure the integrity of the 2012 achievement tests after the state found "compelling" evidence of cheating on the 2009, 2010 and 2011 exams, known as the PSSAs, according to Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis.

The state Inspector General's Office and the district are now investigating possible cheating at one in five district schools - 53 of them in all parts of the city and ranging from elementary schools to high schools - plus three Philadelphia charters.

On Thursday, Piotrowski spent his day at a district middle school at the center of the inquiry - one of just 11 schools with the most serious allegations requiring the highest level of monitoring.

(The Inquirer agreed to keep the school's identity confidential for security reasons.)

For the first time, staff administering the exams had to sign documents acknowledging that criminal penalties may be sought if wrongdoing is found in test administration. There was more training for staff involved with testing, and more focus on materials security, with every school getting some type of monitoring.

So far, things have gone fairly smoothly district-wide, Piotrowski said. But that's to be expected, as the vast majority of teachers and staff are doing the right thing.

"If something goes wrong, usually it's one or two people who are responsible," Piotrowski said. "People who were breaking rules, it's clear that they knew they were breaking rules."

Piotrowski arrived at the school shortly after 7:30 a.m. Because of the allegations against the school, testing materials are under total embargo; a district representative had to open them when they were shipped to the school last month, and must be present when tests are handed out and collected every day.

The first-floor room where the tests are kept is so secure that not even the principal has a key. The testing coordinator let Piotrowski in, and shortly before the test was scheduled to begin, Piotrowski pulled out a small pocket knife and sliced open the red adhesive marked "security tape" sealing a tan cabinet.

Inside were the exam books, divided into 12 piles for each of the different class sections taking the test. Piotrowski and the testing coordinator transferred them into 12 plastic milk crates. Forms with students' identification numbers, test numbers and test administrator names were on file, making it easy to figure out who had custody of a test book if problems developed down the road.

Soon, proctors would pick up their students' exams, signing a form that certified what they had taken.

(They also picked up raffle tickets. This school, like many others, uses the possibility of prizes - gift certificates, even a flat-screen TV - to get students to show up, try hard, and not disrupt others.)

As the tests begin, Piotrowski and the testing coordinator begin making loops around the building, checking in on every testing room.

"I look for things I'm not supposed to be seeing," said the test coordinator, a school veteran who's new to the exam-overseer job. He's looking for posters that contain curricular material and aren't covered up; proctors giving prohibited assistance; students talking.

Things are going very well at the school, he said. Four days into the exam period, it had no infractions.

"From the beginning, you could tell the school was taking everything very seriously," Piotrowski said. "In general, people want to go above and beyond this year."

Staff at this school seem to regard Piotrowski and his colleagues as a support system, not a nuisance, but that's not been the case at every school, he said.

"Some schools see me as police and not as support," Piotrowski said. "Some schools think it's unfair that they're getting extra monitoring."

And many teachers have said they think the state's edict that they not be allowed to test their own students is unfair. At this school, where every grade is tested and the testing spans one week, not two, designing a plan that satisfied state regulations was relatively easy, the testing coordinator said.

The buzz about possible cheating at the school - amplified by media reports - has affected teachers, the testing coordinator admitted. But going into the exam, "the teachers really have a positive attitude. Everyone's general consensus is - whatever happened before, that's in the past. We have to move forward."

Peering quickly into a second-floor classroom, Piotrowski hesitated for a moment - he thought he saw a student with a cellphone. But a closer look revealed it was a calculator.

"That's OK," Piotrowski said.

Later, he ran into the test coordinator, who had a question - what should be done about three students who are hospitalized, likely long-term? Depending on where they're hospitalized, Piotrowski said, a staffer might have to get the tests to the students and administer them. He promised to follow up.

Close to the end of the first testing window, an eighth-grade girl darted out of the room and made a beeline for her locker - a definite no-no.

Her teacher was right on the girl's heels.

"Oh no," the teacher said. "Not even an option."

She ushered the student back into the classroom.

"It's good to see teachers setting expectations," Piotrowski said.

Piotrowski, who came to the district as a data analyst seven years ago, said his office was relieved the state had stepped in to investigate the most serious schools and that responsibility for probing others was transferred to the district's Office of General Counsel.

"We think it's fabulous," he said. "Quite frankly, our department's not really staffed to do it, and we don't have the background and training to do it."

Going forward, all serious cheating allegations will be handled by the general counsel's office, he said.

He said a district tip line established for teachers and others to provide confidential information about infractions "hasn't netted anything for this year, or for any schools not on our radar."

That's good, he said. Quiet is good.


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

|
|
|
|
|