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Two of Pa.'s largest charters part of test score probe

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by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook/NewsWorks
 

Two of the largest charters in Pennsylvania, Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) and the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber), are among the 89 schools across the state that are to be investigated for statistical irregularities on 2009 standardized tests.

In all, 10 Pennsylvania charters were found to have 2009 test scores warranting further inquiry, according to a recently revealed state report meant to identify "potential test results that may have been earned unfairly."

The rest of the 89 schools are spread over 38 school districts. State Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis has directed those districts to conduct investigations in all their traditional public schools that were heavily flagged in the study. The charters with unusual results will investigate themselves, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) spokesperson Tim Eller. 

PA Cyber is the oldest and biggest cyber charter in Pennsylvania. The school enrolls more than 10,000 students statewide, including 480 from Philadelphia.

CCCS, meanwhile, is the largest brick-and-mortar charter in Pennsylvania. Spread over two campuses, the school enrolls more than 2,700 students, making it bigger than half of the state’s districts. CCCS educates about 54 percent of the kindergarten through 8th grade students in the Chester-Upland school district.

CCCS was founded by Gladwyne lawyer and entrepreneur Vahan Gureghian, who is also the founder and CEO of Charter School Management, Inc. (CSMI), a for-profit management company that operates CCCS under contract. The school has attracted attention in part because Gureghian is an influential power broker in both Delaware and Montgomery counties and a major Republican campaign donor. 

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Gureghian has in recent years contributed almost half a million dollars to state Republican candidates and committees, including over $300,000 – more than any other individual donor – to the campaign of Gov. Tom Corbett. A strong proponent of charter expansion and school choice, Gureghian played a significant role on Corbett’s transition team, including as a member of its education committee.

Gureghian’s access to Pennsylvania Republican leaders is evidence of his considerable influence in the state capitol, said Lawrence Feinberg, founder and co-chair of the Keystone State Education Coalition, a public education advocacy group consisting primarily of locally elected volunteer school board members from across the state.

"If you were to ask around Harrisburg as to who is setting education policy in the state of Pennsylvania, the short answer would [include] Mr. Gureghian," said Feinberg. 

State education spokesperson Eller did not respond to several requests to discuss Gureghian's current influence on Gov. Corbett's education policy.

Earlier this spring, Corbett touted CCCS as a model for the state.

"What you’re doing here needs to be reported to all the people of Pennsylvania, so they can understand what can be accomplished if there’s a vision, if there’s a commitment, if there’s determination, and if there’s choice,” Corbett told the students and staff of CCCS during an April 29 visit to the school.

The pending test score investigations are the outgrowth of a recently surfaced “Data Forensics Technical Report” in which test maker Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) highlighted schools with “aberrant” results on the 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams. The report was delivered to the state Department of Education (PDE) in 2009, but was only brought to light when it was published by the Notebook.

In the wake of test score cheating scandals in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, both of which started with statistical analyses similar to the one conducted by DRC, the Notebook asked PDE for copies of any forensic analysis of test score results that had been done in Pennsylvania. PDE responded by providing the 2009 DRC report, as well as hundreds of accompanying files with further statistical detail.

The statistical analysis does not prove that cheating occurred, but suggests that some results are statistically unusual and should be investigated further.

"It should be noted that the schools and students were flagged based on statistical evidence alone," reads the report. "This list [of schools] serves as a good starting point when examining schools and students for potential testing irregularities."

The DRC study flagged schools for statistical anomalies such as improbable jumps in student scores, unlikely increases in the percentages of students reaching proficient or advanced levels, suspicious number of wrong answers that were erased and changed to the correct answer, and big changes in participation rates for subgroups of students.

According to the report, schools flagged in the erasure analysis are "of particular interest."

PDE has determined that the 89 schools having three or more flags in a single grade should be investigated further. Ten of those schools, or 11 percent, are charters. Overall, charters represent less than 5 percent of the state’s approximately 3,300 publicly-funded schools. According to PDE, there are 135 charter schools and 12 cyber charter schools in the state.

Philadelphia has the state’s largest concentration of charters. It is also home to nearly 40 percent of the schools to be investigated, including seven of the 10 charters.

Investigations into possible cheating typically involve interviews with students and school personnel.

Among other things, the 2009 test results of PA Cyber were flagged repeatedly by DRC for improbable changes in the test participation rates of its economically disadvantaged students.

In a statement released earlier this week, PA Cyber attributed the report’s findings to the school’s rapid recent enrollment growth and strongly denounced cheating.

“There were NO flagged results for PA Cyber for irregular patterns of erasures,” read the statement.

CCCS, meanwhile, was flagged 13 times in the DRC summary report and twice more in the accompanying files, mostly for statistical anomalies such as wide year-to-year swings in student proficiency rates and "aberrant" wrong-to-right erasure patterns.

From 2007-08 to 2008-09, for example, the math performance levels of CCCS 8th graders nearly tripled, from 22.1 percent to 65.4 percent proficient – gains that the report deemed improbable.

In addition, DRC’s analysis found unusual erasure patterns on CCCS student response sheets in both reading and math in grades 5, 6, and 7 and in math alone in grade 8. Dozens of individual 7th graders’ student response sheets were flagged for high numbers of wrong answers that were erased and changed to the correct answer.

Given those results, “it seems like an investigation would be warranted,” said Andrew Porter, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and a testing expert consulted by the Notebook.

Since 2003, CCCS has a mixed record in making "adequate yearly progress" based on meeting federal learning goals, including targets for how many students reach proficient levels on state test. The school met targets for all student subgroups in three of those years: 2004, 2009, and 2010. 

In response to requests for comment made over several days, a CCCS representative emailed to a Notebook reporter a "notice to cease and desist all defamatory communications concerning alleged PSSA 'cheating' at CCCS."

The emailed notice, sent by attorney Francis Catania, emphasized that the DRC report by itself proves nothing.  
 
"The report 'repeatedly stresses that there is absolutely no proof of ‘cheating,’ clearly stating that the report ‘does not imply that the school or student engaged in appropriate [sic] testing activity,’”  the email said.

Though Gureghian donated heavily to the campaign of Gov. Corbett and other leaders in Harrisburg, his school will be reviewed just like the others flagged in the DRC report, said state Department of Education spokesperson Tim Eller.

“Contributions have no bearing whatsoever,” said Eller.

Since it started with just 97 students in 1998, CCCS has grown to become the dominant elementary and middle school in beleaguered Chester, home to one of the state’s poorest and lowest-achieving districts.

Recently, Gureghian has also been seeking to expand. 

He is currently moving to open a charter school in Camden, N.J.

And earlier this spring, he engaged in talks with officials in the Pottstown School District about the possibility of his company, CSMI, being awarded rights to convert all of Pottstown’s elementary schools to charters. Those conversations were first reported by the Pottstown Mercury,  which published a string of emails obtained under right-to-know laws by a Pottstown school board member.

Gureghian’s efforts to expand into Pottstown included a closed-door February 23 meeting in Harrisburg attended by the Pottstown district leadership; Gureghian; state Sen. John Rafferty, who represents Pottstown; and state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

About a month after the Feb. 23 meeting and days before Gureghian made public his interest in running Pottstown’s elementary schools, Piccola introduced a charter school reform bill that would, among other things, make it easier for charter operators to take over public schools and districts. The bill did not make it through the most recent legislative session, but supporters are hoping to bring it up again in the fall.

The results of the test score investigations – as well as the results of a state forensic analysis of 2011 PSSA results – are expected sometime in August.

A similar forensic review of 2010 PSSA scores is expected to be complete by the fall.

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