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State prohibits Philly teachers from administering PSSA to their own students

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Update 2/29, 2:40 p.m. PDE has just confirmed that three charter schools, including the Chester Community Charter School and the Hazleton Area School District, have also been required to follow this protocol. The other two charter schools are both in Philadelphia: Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter High School and Imhotep Institute Charter High School.

PDE spokesman Tim Eller said that even though hundreds of schools in Philadelphia have not been flagged for any suspected testing irregularities, "The Department believes it is necessary to apply the policy districtwide."

He also confirmed a statewide change: In the past only the building principal had to sign a certification that the testing protocols had been followed. Now multiple signatures are required. The building principal, the district and school assessment coordinator, and the proctor must all sign documents affirming that they have followed protocol and not tampered with the test booklets.

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In the wake of concerns about cheating on state exams, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has prohibited Philadelphia teachers – but apparently not teachers in other districts across the state – from administering the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test to their own students.

The move, which represents a major change in testing protocol, comes just weeks before schools' annual administration of the PSSA is slated to begin. State officials are in the midst of a state inquiry into potential cheating involving as many as 50 District schools

According to several sources, the new mandate comes on the heels of an earlier PDE-issued testing guideline that “recommended” a similar change in procedure statewide. No such modification is reflected on PDE's web page about test security, which still dates to 2011.

A spokesperson for PDE did not immediately respond to a question of whether any charter schools or districts besides Philadelphia have received a similar directive. 

But Christopher McGinley, superintendent in Lower Merion, said that to his knowledge, no other districts in the state, including his own, has been ordered to apply this change in protocol, which he called a "terribly unfair thing to do to kids."

Robert McGrogan, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA) in Philadelphia, said that principals were beside themselves as a result of the new directives.

"It's incredibly disruptive," he said.  

A few weeks ago, said McGrogan, the District held an extensive training for principals and testing coordinators that did not include the new requirements. He said that the District had a computerized system for matching students to their test proctors, based largely on who the students' classroom teachers were. Now, that system will have to be rebuilt from scratch, just weeks before the tests are to be administered. 

"This is incredibly frustrating that the training for administrators and the protocols for each school that were developed are no longer valid," said McGrogan. "It all needs to be redone in a short time frame."

The state’s interest in potential test cheating started in July of last year, when the Notebook published a state-commissioned "forensic audit" of 2009 test results conducted by test-maker Data Recognition Corporation.

Based on the statistical irregularities flagged by DRC, PDE ordered 38 school districts and 10 charter organizations to investigate a total of 89 Pennsylvania schools - including 28 District schools - whose results were flagged for potential irregularities. Although an internal District review determined that only 13 schools warranted further scrutiny, state officials recently turned their attention on dozens more District schools, based at least in part on preliminary results from analyses of 2010 and 2011 PSSA results that have not yet been made public.

District officials recently confirmed that they had made changes to procedures around the handling and monitoring of PSSA exams, but did not announce any changes that would prohibit teachers from administering the tests to their own students.

Lower Merion's McGinley said that he was “not aware of any suburban school districts that are following [the] recommendation” from PDE to adopt the test administration procedure that will now be required in Philadelphia. 

“Teachers spend all year developing a positive working relationship with students,” said McGinley. “That’s what we want in the atmosphere of testing, for kids to be encouraged and supported.”

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that he was "surprised" that city teachers could not proctor the tests of their own students. He said that he thought the cheating investigation in Philadelphia was unwarranted and part of an effort to blame teachers instead of using testing to improve instruction.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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