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Pa. wants 90 schools investigated for 2009 cheating

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by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook/NewsWorks
 

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) announced Wednesday that it is ordering 40 districts and nine charter operators across the state to investigate possible cheating at 90 schools whose standardized test score results were flagged as suspicious in a recently surfaced 2009 report.

The charters and the districts, which include Philadelphia, will be contacted this week and will have 30 days to complete their investigations, said PDE spokesperson Tim Eller. 

“We will work with them as deeply as we need to,” he said.

Eller also said on Wednesday that PDE is conducting an internal investigation into why the “Data Forensics Technical Report” and accompanying files, which were prepared by Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) and delivered to PDE in July 2009, were not acted upon at the time

“It appears that when the report was received, nothing was done,” said Eller. “It only came to light to us through [the Notebook].”

In May of this year, the Notebook requested of PDE any forensic analysis of state test score results. Eller responded by providing the entire set of DRC files from 2009, apparently without being fully aware of what they contained.

Last week, the Notebook first reported on the DRC narrative summary, which used statistical analysis to try to ferret out possible cheating on the 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exam. The report identified dozens of Pennsylvania schools that had some combination of statistically improbable schoolwide test score gains, unlikely jumps in student performance levels across years, and highly unlikely numbers of wrong answers that were erased and changed to the correct answer. 

The analysis was commissioned by PDE while the department was under the leadership of former Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak, an appointee of former Gov. Ed Rendell.

“That report never reached my desk,” said Zahorchak on Wednesday. “I don’t have any idea why it languished.”

Zahorchak, who is the current superintendent of Allentown School District in Pennsylvania, was adamant that he would have acted on the report’s findings had he been made aware of them.

“When you have allegations that this degree of cheating was going on, you have to investigate,” he said. “Why it wasn’t done is something I can’t do anything about from my desk here.”

Among the Pennsylvania schools flagged for irregularities three or more times in at least one grade were 22 Philadelphia District schools and seven Philadelphia charters.

On Wednesday, a School District of Philadelphia spokesperson said that District had not yet been directed by PDE to conduct any investigations, but reiterated the District’s willingness to reopen old investigations and start new ones, pending support from PDE.

One school that would seem certain to be investigated is Wagner Middle in Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane neighborhood. Wagner was flagged six times in the report for its 7th grade results and three times for its 8th grade results.

Penny Nixon, the Philadelphia District’s current associate superintendent of schools, was Wagner’s principal when the PSSA was administered in 2009. Nixon was promoted to an administrative post in the Northwest regional office in July of 2009, a District spokesperson said.

In response to a request for comment from Nixon, the District released a statement saying that “until we have reason to believe otherwise, we stand on the integrity of [the] individuals who educate our students.”

District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs also sought to allay concerns about District staff being called upon to investigate one of the District’s senior leadership team.

“If the investigation requires a conversation with Ms. Nixon, she will be available,” said Childs. “As with all cases, the District will ensure that these investigations are conducted in a fair manner and without bias.”

On Wednesday, the Notebook uncovered detailed school-by-school results among the hundreds of files included in the DRC analysis. The report for Wagner illustrates the extent of the statistical irregularities flagged by the test maker.

Between 2007-08 and 2008-09, for example, the percentage of Wagner 7th graders scoring proficient or advanced on the PSSA jumped 23.1 points in math and 23.2 points in reading, which DRC’s analysis deemed highly improbable. The report also flagged the response sheets of Wagner’s 7th graders for having a highly suspicious number of wrong answers that were erased and changed to the correct answer. 

The “wrong-to-right” erasure patterns on the response sheets of Wagner’s 8th graders were also flagged by DRC. According to the report, the odds against the school’s 8th grade erasure patterns in reading and math having occurred purely by chance were almost one in one quadrillion. The report flagged as suspicious the individual student response sheets for 19 Wagner 8th graders in math and 34 Wagner 8th graders in reading. 

In order to protect students’ privacy rights, the Notebook posted the Wagner report only after redacting the anonymous identification numbers of individual students whose response sheets were flagged as suspicious.

The anonymous student identification numbers of every student in the state who had a response sheet flagged are contained in DRC files reviewed by the Notebook for the first time on Wednesday. PDE spokesperson Eller acknowledged that this information should have been redacted before it was provided to the press.

Editor’s note: The Notebook is still reviewing the hundreds of files included in the DRC analysis and will make additional information public when possible.

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