Scores fall at probed city schools

The declines in state results were sometimes dramatic at the schools in the cheating inquiry.

Posted: September 24, 2012

When officials released state test scores last week, all eyes were on the 53 Philadelphia public schools and three charters still being probed for possible cheating.

An Inquirer analysis shows that scores in reading and math dropped - sometimes dramatically - in virtually all of the schools under investigation.

All but two of the 53 district schools saw declines in both reading and math. So did all three charters - Imhotep, Philadelphia Electrical and Technical, and Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners.

Seventeen district schools and two city charters - all among the schools being investigated for possible improprieties on the 2009-11 exams - had passing rates at least 30 points lower than last year. All but one of those schools - Pennypacker, a district school - was under investigation for cheating when the tests were taken.

In the spring, the state administered the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams. These tests determine whether students in third through eighth grade and 11th grade are performing at grade level. The 2012 results were released Friday.

The single biggest drop came at Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson, which is under investigation. Its math score for 11th-grade pupils plummeted 71 points between 2012 and 2011, from 96.2 percent of students passing to 25.6 percent. (The percentage that passed the reading test declined 3 points.)

Elverson's principal was at a loss to explain the drop.

"It was a surprise to us," said Robert Manning, who has been principal of the 270-student high school since 2005. "Our seniors this year, they are good students, strong students, and they were good and strong as juniors. Maybe we got overconfident. I don't know."

Manning said the school had emphasized math instruction the year scores were so high; last year, Elverson lost a math teacher.

Manning said the school did not cheat.

"At the military academy, we're teaching ethics and to be honorable," he said. "If we don't set the example, then how can we expect the students to be honorable and ethical? If I were to find anyone who wasn't, they would be out of here."

At two schools where teachers and others came forward since May 2011 to The Inquirer to report that cheating occurred - Cayuga Elementary in Hunting Park and Roosevelt Middle School in East Germantown - scores also decreased dramatically.

The number of students passing at Roosevelt fell 27 percentage points in math and 38 points in reading year to year. Since 2010, the percentage of students passing math has plummeted - dropping 50 points in total.

Cayuga fell 36 percentage points in math and 31 in reading. Since 2009, the percentage passing reading has fallen 48 points.

Outside Cayuga on Friday, parent Jose Meda, who had not heard about the cheating allegations, said he was disappointed in the school.

"We're about to transfer our kids to another school since [Cayuga] is not giving them what they need," Meda said.

Neither Cayuga principal Evelyn Cortez nor Stefanie Ressler, Roosevelt's principal until 2011, returned calls for comment. Neither did administrators at Imhotep, Walter Palmer, and Philadelphia Electrical and Technical, or leaders at Locke, Huey, F.S. Edmonds, Emlen, Wagner, Fulton, and McDaniel - all schools with significant drops and still under investigation for cheating.

At Locke, for instance, the percentage passing dropped 42 points in math and 32 points in reading. Emlen's scores were down 39 points in math and 43 points in reading. Edmonds dropped 44 points in math and 52 points in reading.

Astonishing numbers

For the Philadelphia School District, the numbers are astonishing: For the first time in a decade, student performance on the PSSAs got worse, not better. Now, less than half of all city public school students read on grade level, and exactly half can do math on grade level.

Scores are down in every tested grade, with bigger drops at the lower grades. Year to year, third graders' math scores dropped 17 points, to 49 percent passing, and reading scores dropped 13 points, to 45 percent passing. Eleventh graders' reading scores dropped one point, to 43 percent passing, and their math scores dropped one point, to 36 percent passing.

In a single year, the number of city schools that met state standards plummeted 68 percent. Just 33 of the district's 239 schools hit their mark, down from 102 of 249 last year.

Of the 33 schools that made "Adequate Yearly Progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind law, 16 are special-admissions schools - they get to select their students and take only academically talented ones.

The hundreds of millions of dollars in brutal, classroom-level budget cuts enacted last year and the uncertainty bred by the district's financial and organizational woes likely factored into the drops. State standards got tougher, too.

But state and district officials acknowledge that cheating played a part, as well. Unprecedented security measures were put in place for the 2012 administration of the PSSAs, and cheating allegations for prior years' exams had been well-publicized.

To Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., "some of these results raise immediate alarm, obvious alarm. There have been such dramatic drops from one year to the next."

Brian Jacob, a testing-integrity expert and professor at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said: "It seems pretty clear that a number of the Philadelphia schools had indeed some test manipulation. ... It seems like a pretty clear case."

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said Friday that, in the coming months, complaints would be filed against more than 100 educators statewide and that officials would later determine whether they would attempt to revoke licenses. Hite said separate district sanctions would also be imposed on those believed to have cheated, and he confirmed that some of the educators Tomalis referenced would be from Philadelphia.

Unbroken streak

For nine years, district officials have pointed to the district's unbroken streak of test-score growth with pride, citing it as evidence that reforms were helping to slowly rebuild a broken system.

But the streak is now snapped. This year, 50 percent of students met state standards in math, and 45 percent in reading. That's down from 59 percent of students hitting the mark in math last year, and 52 percent in reading.

As a system, Philadelphia is now back at its 2008 proficiency level.

Hite, who started his job full time last week, said he was disappointed in the results, but cautioned against reading too much into the numbers.

"Any time we talk about assessments, we have to look at trends," Hite said in an interview. "We've seen a decline this year, but we have to analyze this over a period of time. It really will depend on how these data look a year from now, two years from now, three years from now."

Arlene C. Ackerman, who led city schools from 2008 until last summer, said she was "saddened" to hear of the test-score drops. During her tenure, Ackerman pointed out in an e-mail, millions were invested in teachers, counselors, and other school support services; now much of that has been cut. She said she was not surprised student achievement tumbled.

Asked last year about cheating during her tenure, Ackerman downplayed the possibility.

"We're talking about erasure marks," she told reporters in August 2011. "We're not talking about cheating parties or, you know, wholesale cheating in a school or in a classroom."

But now, the evidence is much stronger.

On Friday, Ackerman said in the e-mail that "there is never an excuse for cheating," but that she was "hopeful the possible cheating allegations will be proven to be false, because one classroom or one school involved in cheating is one too many."

Hite said that district staff would analyze the results closely to try to determine why the scores dropped. He pointed to budget cuts, but also to the resulting "disruption" - teachers moving from school to school, staff members worrying that they might lose their jobs - as possible reasons for the drops. Kids pick up on adults' undercurrent, Hite said.

Either way, Hite said, the scores are a sobering reminder of the work ahead.

"It's about improving our collective ability to teach so that students have the best opportunity to learn," he said. "How do we create the conditions, even inside this budgetary environment, that will provide the best opportunities for teachers to teach and students to learn?"


Ackerman Response

This is the complete statement from former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman on the decline in test scores

in Philadelphia:

"I am saddened to learn that the test scores have dropped this year. During my tenure as superintendent, millions of dollars and resources were reallocated directly to the schools. Class sizes were significantly reduced; new curriculum and intervention materials were introduced in our lowest-performing schools, as well as there was a reduction in the ratio between counselors and nurses. Parent ombudsmen and social workers were used to address the social, emotional, and mental-health needs of students and their families so that teachers could focus on teaching and learning. In many of our schools, teacher coaches were added to visit classrooms and work directly with teachers and principals to improve instructional practices. We expanded music and art and

put in place an extraordinarily successful summer school with intervention and accelerated programs for more than 40,000 students. It increased graduation rates by more than 6%. These are all research-based strategies that are proven to raise achievement. I understand that almost none of these programs are currently in place due to budget cuts? Is there a surprise that student achievement

has suffered?

On the possible cheating investigation, let me be very clear, there is never an excuse for cheating. In the end, the students suffer. Whenever allegations of cheating were brought to my attention, there was an immediate investigation by the Accountability Office. If the allegations were proven to be true, the adult employees involved were reprimanded and different protocols were put in place at the school the following year. I am hopeful the possible cheating allegations will be proven to be false, because one classroom or one school involved in cheating is one

too many."


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.

Staff writers Dan Hardy and

Joe Trinacria contributed

to this article.

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