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Arrests imminent in cheating scandal, sources confirm

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Sources have confirmed that an unknown number of Philadelphia educators have been told to turn themselves in Thursday in connection with a criminal investigation by the state attorney general into cheating on standardized tests in Philadelphia schools.

The imminent arrests were first reported Wednesday evening by the Inquirer.

The criminal investigation and charges are the latest developments in a statewide cheating probe that began in 2011. The Pennsylvania Department of Education ultimately called for investigations of likely cheating at 53 District schools in Philadelphia and three city charters. 

The PDE investigation was triggered after the Notebook and NewsWorks asked for any forensic analyses of results on state standardized tests and received one for 2009, the latest year for which a study had been done. The Inquirer had also written detailed accounts of cheating at Roosevelt Middle School.

The state analysis showed, among other irregularities, that dozens of Pennsylvania schools had a statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures in their answer booklets, which suggested tampering by adults.

Subsequently, PDE did similar analyses for later years and, based on the finding, hired an outside law firm to help with a non-criminal investigation into cheating in several districts. In Philadelphia, PDE divided the 53 schools into three tiers and told the District to investigate most of them itself, which it did -- and continues to do -- with the help of pro bono private lawyers.

But these investigations have plodded along for more than two years without subpoena power or the ultimate hammer of criminal charges and the potential of losing one's pension. The attorney general convened a grand jury and started a criminal investigation much later.

The existence of such an investigation came to light in January 2014, just days after District officials updated the School Reform Commission on the results of its non-criminal probe.

They said that 138 Philadelphia educators had been implicated -- 69 from 14 so-called Tier 1 schools investigated directly by PDE and another 69 in 13 of the 19 Tier 2 schools investigated by the District. The SRC terminated three principals as a result of the scandal.

Since then, there have been no public announcements by the District of any disciplinary actions taken against other educators, such as termination, suspension, or lesser sanctions. Although some teachers have been fired since, no reasons have been given publicly.

Although the state discloses disciplinary actions taken against educators, it does not draw attention to them. One must monitor a website set up for that purpose for information. No state disciplinary actions involving cheating have been posted in 2014. 

In sheer numbers, the scope of the cheating scandal in Philadelphia rivals that of Atlanta, where more than 140 educators, including then-superintendent Beverly Hall, were implicated and 35 have faced racketeering, fraud, and other charges. Prosecutors accused Hall of creating a culture that condoned cheating in the name of raising test scores by any means necessary. 

The Atlanta investigation proceeded very differently than it has here. There, the state pursued criminal charges from the start. 

Philadelphia sources have said that, without subpoena power, it had been difficult to get people in schools to talk about what really happened and for investigations to gain traction.

"Once you have admissions and statements and have the threat of perjury, the investigation goes easier," said one source with knowledge of the probe. "Once you have criminal prosecutions, there goes pensions. ... We can’t touch pensions -- that requires criminal convictions."

The source added: "It is easy to revoke certifications after convictions and plea agreements, but starting from the civil side is hard, and the process was very long."

In the wake of the probe, PDE imposed stricter rules on testing, and PSSA scores in many of the flagged schools, District and charter, plummeted. Scores dropped in many schools across the state.

 

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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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