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

By Benjamin Herold on Jul 21, 2011 11:07 AM

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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Comments (21)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 21, 2011 5:28 pm

It's obvious that Corbett is Gureghian's boy and will do whatever his boss tells him to do. Whatever happened to the Inquirer case where they were trying to gett Vahan's pay revealed to the public? Isn't that a right to know case since he is using our tax dollars to feed his wallet?

Chester Community Charter School is where the administrators make some of the highest wages while the teachers are paid one of the lowest rates in the states. They had so much turnover that new hires had to sign a contract that said they would pay CCCS $2,0000 if they left before May. So much for a two week notice. Does CCCS pay teachers they fire the same?

I know one former teacher who quit in May after her first year. She didn't even have a new job lined up. It was more important to get out of CCCS than be employed full time. She ended up paying $1,300 out of her own pocket that first year. CCCS paid alot of it back, but still owes her $300. Meanwhile Vahan had made more thatn $60 million over ten years from this "wonder" school. Doesn't look like the school is as wonderful as Vahan would have us believe. No wonder he has to get Corbett to withhold money from Philly. What better way to drive public school teachers into the crap employment offers his charter offers? A carpetbagger of the worst kind.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 21, 2011 5:14 pm

Please cut the crap and stop pretending to be shocked by the obvious---ALL CHARTERS are crooked by their genesis if nothing else. Let's just give all the Public Schools to Dwight Evans and Kenny Gamble, 2 sterling examples of fraud, and be done with the whole thing.

Submitted by Anonymous for Now (not verified) on July 21, 2011 5:29 pm

Yes, and how much money is Mr. Gureghian putting into his own pockets? There is a great investigative article waiting to happen! Where is our public money going, who is getting it and how much are they getting?

Now am I reading this article right? He founded the charter school. Then he created a private educational management organization. Then he contracted out services to his own management organization that he personally profits from. Sounds like a scam to me. I will bet so are their test scores a scam. I bet he profits from a building rental scheme, too.

I will bet he puts his own friends and cronies on the board of trustees, too. And I will bet there are a whole bunch of people on the "money-go-round."

And governor Corbett is his buddy. Corbett already visted the charter school.

And charter schools are supposed to be public schools? What a laugh....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 21, 2011 6:06 pm

It's a massive problem and everybody who is clear thinking, knows the truth. Charters are a trendy way for the rich to get richer while under the pretext of "Helping" the poor. What a disgrace !!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 21, 2011 6:45 pm

As I recall Vahan Gureghian was hired by the charter as a lawyer, but saw an opportunity to get rich and took over the school. The Inquirer did do some features on his school, but he took them to court to prevent having to reveal how much money he had made from the school. His lawyer tried to make it a deal that had gone sour between the Inky owner, Brian T., and Vahan.

Yeah, Corbett shows up at his boss's school, but couldn't be bothered to visit any of the Chester public schools. Why bother? They didn't put up thousands of bucks for his inaugurational ball or campaign.

I love how Vahan tries to pass his Chester charter off as a "success". He actually had the nerve to say that they were doing better than the Chester public schools. Every single school in the state of Pennsylvania could make that same claim and Vahan acts like it's some big achievement. When Corbette visited his school Vahan was bragging about making AYP. Now it seems those scores may be a little fishy. Imagine. His greed knows no bounds.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 21, 2011 7:24 pm

Whose School Is It?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 21, 2011 8:19 pm

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 21, 2011 8:55 pm

Easy money for the rich to get richer and best of all, pretending to be interested in helping kids, especially poor kids. It doesn't get any worse than these scumbags.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 21, 2011 7:19 pm

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 21, 2011 7:54 pm

Oversight, we don't need no stinkin' OVERSIGHT !!

Submitted by Anonymous on July 22, 2011 8:46 am

It's clear that a lot more investigation needs to take place. As a 30+ year veteran of the testing wars, I have been on both the good and the bad side of the numbers. Even when my school was on the bad side (Elverson when it was a middle school), I thought the use of test scores was a good idea because there was so little consensus about what our kids were actually learning. I still think these tests can be helpful, but they have been perverted into punitive anti-teacher nonsense instead of helping us figure out some practical ways to help our students. I worked as hard--or harder--at my failing school as I do at the successful school where I currently work.

Abandoning testing completely is like telling a doctor to take my word on what I weigh...but using the number to heap scorn and calumny on me isn't much of a proven weight-loss method.

Somehow, we all need to come clean. We have a lot of kids that need help, and a lot of teachers struggling mightily to help them. I have no faith that anyone out there has a clue about how to address this problem en masse, and acting as if the charters have a lock on the cure is ridiculous.

While I know several excellent teacher coaches in the SDP, I've been dismayed over the years at the lack of quality that pervades many levels of the support system for teachers. SDP "professional development" is simply a set of godawful powerpoint scripted nonsense.

I hate to say this, but I think we need to stop addressing the needs of our worst-performing students and focus on two groups: K to 3 and then better performing kids at the middle level. We should create more "magnet" middle schools for the well-behaved. There are many undereducated kids in this group. When we figure out how to provide better services to the kids we know we could help if we could separate them from their disruptive peers, we could at least achieve some generational change.

This won't happen of course. As a society, we will continue to shout at teachers, and the more desperate among us will sink to lower and lower levels to appease a lot of administrators who would be lost if they spent any time at all in the classroom.

And when do the Colleges of Ed get put on the spot? They are the gatekeepers for who enters the profession in the first place...when does their money-grab come up for scrutiny?

Submitted by Anonymous Retiree (not verified) on July 22, 2011 11:20 am

Thank you for opening up this can of worms,...

It is NOT the Chester Charter kids I worry about. It is the Chester School District students, and teachers, that have lost out because the charter schools sucked so much money out of the system. Now, Chester has laid off around 40% of their teachers - people with up to ten -fifteen years experience.

It is a sad state of affairs.

I hope Camden and Pottstown don't jumped to what appears to be simple solutions to tough problems.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 22, 2011 12:42 pm

Unfortunately Chester Charter and the Chest public schools go hand in hand. There is a high turnover at Chester Charter (which is why they had the $2,000 penalty if you left before May, that was challenged in court), Because of the long hours and low wages it's hard to get teachers. What better way to recruit fresh meat than to start shutting down the public schools and laying off their teachers. Corbett is working hand-in-hand with his boss, Vahan Gureghian. No wonder he was too ashamed to visit the public schools when he visited the Chester Charter.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 22, 2011 1:30 pm

Bingo--The inner city problems are enormous social issues and their students having little interest in education is a symptom of the FAR larger and FAR more complex matter. That's why charters are the worse kind of solution. They just rip off public money and give the kids nothing while making the providers rich. It's nothing more than a trendy scheme to make the rich richer at the expense of the disenfranchised who can't stop them. People like Nutter and Ackerman do their bidding and keep their mouths shut while the kids are being carpet bombed. Corbett and his buddies share too in the profits. In 50 years on the planet, I have never seen such scumbags who will apparently resort any level necessary to make a quick buck. People of color need to stop marching and start screaming with malice or their kids are doomed.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on July 22, 2011 12:04 pm

There are many problems with charter schools siphoning money from public education and making individuals rich. There are also admissions games played with lotteries as addressed by this article in the New York Times yesterday:

All we really want is a fair and level playing field.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 25, 2011 10:50 am

Same as it ever was

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 2, 2011 2:26 am

When will these Republican jerks get nailed for what they really are? They don't care about education, they are addicted to power and big money. It's obvious, but what will it take for people to open their eyes?! A big fat test score scandal might do the trick here, and I believe the ultimate outcome would be very beneficial for the kids and the honest teachers and administrators and the system in general. Teachers have become the scapegoats for the poor performance of a dysfunctional institution, which still is no excuse for cheating, but testing alone does not inspire quality education. If widespread cheating is uncovered, let's make sure we go farther than just punishing the guilty and leaving it there. Get to the bottom of the issue and improve education from the ground up.

Submitted by Dave (not verified) on August 5, 2011 4:13 pm

"The charters with unusual results will investigate themselves, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) spokesperson Tim Eller."

Um, they're going to investigate THEMSELVES? I'm sure the truth will come out, never!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 30, 2011 3:03 pm

Just think how DUMB, Eller must think we are for him to even suggest such nonsense. TIME TO FIGHT, FOLKS!!

Submitted by Dave (not verified) on August 5, 2011 5:04 pm

"The charters with unusual results will investigate themselves, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) spokesperson Tim Eller."

Um, they're going to investigate THEMSELVES? I'm sure the truth will come out, never!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2014 2:06 am

Charter it is a bad solution, they are just a waste of taxpayers' money, which can give the kids what rich content? This is just a fashionable way.

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