Test scores raise new doubt at Chester charter

Posted: September 24, 2012

Standardized-test scores have dropped precipitously at Chester Community Charter School, the state's largest charter, after an investigation of possible past cheating brought new scrutiny to the school's testing practices.

Results for 2012 state tests released last week show that, schoolwide, scores fell about 30 percentage points in math and reading, with double-digit drops in every grade. Some fell more than 40 percentage points.

The school's 2011 scores had been above or close to state academic proficiency benchmarks; in 2012, they are well below them, even discounting that the state raised the thresholds for this school year.

The drop in scores came after the state Education Department imposed new testing security measures on Chester Community and dozens of other schools statewide when the tests were given this spring, making cheating at those schools much more difficult.

At that time, Chester Community Charter was among four charter schools and 10 school districts under investigation by the state for unresolved irregularities on the 2009, 2010, and 2011 PSSAs - the state's academic accountability test.

"We believe this is the first year we will see actual student performance [in many of the monitored schools] reflected in the scores, without adult interference," Ron Tomalis, Pennsylvania's secretary of education, said last week.

Charter-school officials dismissed the notion that the drop in test scores was evidence that past results were bolstered by pervasive cheating. Rather, they blamed the slump on staff layoffs triggered by a funding crisis.

Still, the drop in scores is a blow to the reputation of the school, which has been touted as an example by supporters of the charter movement, including Gov. Corbett.

The governor visited the school last year, telling students: "By succeeding here, you are demonstrating to other students and parents statewide that having a choice means having a chance."

The charter - with about 3,100 students enrolled this fall in kindergarten through eighth grade at campuses in Chester City and Chester Township in Delaware County - has grown steadily since opening in 1999. Thousands of children seeking a better education transferred to the school from the struggling Chester Upland School District, one of the worst-performing in the state.

The charter school has been controversial because of the way its management company, CSMI L.L.C., has guarded information about its finances, and because Chester Upland administrators blame their financial woes on charter costs. The head of CSMI, Montgomery County lawyer Vahan Gureghian, was Corbett's single largest campaign contributor and served on his transition team.

In a letter to the charter last week, Education Department Deputy Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq said that there had been "overwhelming evidence of testing irregularities" at the school in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

While the department's investigation "did not yield clear conclusions," she said the school would be closely monitored in the future. New measures in test security call for all test materials to be stored in a locked location with a 24-hour surveillance camera. Future tests will be administered in rooms equipped with a security camera.

Charter spokesman A. Bruce Crawley said the school had uncovered no evidence of cheating. He said the Dumaresq letter was an exoneration because "there was not substantive evidence that would lead them to believe that there was substantive or malicious conduct at the school."

Education Department spokesman Tim Eller challenged that view Friday.

"The statistical irregularities point to inappropriate behavior having taken place," he said. "The dramatic drop in test scores this year speaks volumes, we believe."

Crawley blamed the score drop on financing problems created when the Chester Upland School District failed to make its required payments to the charter. He said about 50 aides and other support staff had been laid off last year.

Chester Upland School District board member Charlie Warren, the head of a charter-accountability committee, called the drop in scores "quite alarming."

"This seems to illustrate that there were irregularities in past years," he said. "Scores don't just fall off the cliff like that."

He added: "I have been saying all along that many children there can't read and can't count. We are going to find answers. . . . I think this shows the failure of the gimmick that is called school choice."

Evidence of cheating at the school surfaced on 2009 tests. It chiefly involved a statistically improbable number of instances in which test answers were erased and changed from wrong to right.

For the four years before 2009, the school had not met state testing benchmarks, a designation that put it in a category commonly called "failing schools."

The 2012 test scores and the investigation of the school for test irregularities are bound to renew long-standing questions about the school's management fees and the veil of secrecy over how much profit Gureghian is making from the charter.

Bond documents and court filings show that CSMI's contract with the charter called for it to be paid $5,873 per student last school year, and an even higher per-student payment - $6,445 - for 2012-13. That totaled more than $17.6 million due last year to CSMI. That is more than the school spent on instruction and more than a third of the school's total expenditures of $46.8 million.

In 2010-11, the latest year for which figures are available, the school spent the highest percentage of any district or charter on business expenditures, a category that includes the management fee, while spending the eighth-lowest percentage in the state on instruction.

Crawley said the management company performed far more services for the school than most do. CSMI, he said, is giving school employees "what they need to provide a quality education for these kids."

CSMI has refused to disclose how much of its fee is profit.

The management fees are not all that Gureghian has received for his work at Chester Community. In 2010, he was paid $50.7 million for the purchase of the charter school's buildings by Friends of Chester Community Charter School, a nonprofit group formed to purchase the property and support the charter.

Gureghian had originally paid for the buildings' construction; a spokesman said the cost to build them was about $50 million.

Gureghian also received more than $20 million in rent for the charter-school buildings, before he sold them.

The 2010 purchase of the school buildings was financed by $57.4 million in bonds issued by the Delaware County Industrial Development Authority, an agency that underwrites bond issues for a variety of public financing purposes.


Contact Dan Hardy

at 601-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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