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District: 13 of 28 schools warrant cheating investigation

By Benjamin Herold on Aug 15, 2011 05:18 PM
Photo: Benjamin Herold

District Deputy Chief of Accountability Fran Newberg discussed the District's review of 2009 PSSA results at a press event Monday.

An internal School District review of suspicious 2009 standardized test score results at 28 city schools has yielded no firm evidence of cheating, officials announced Monday.

Thirteen of the schools had results that warrant more intensive investigation, officials determined. But they declined to identify the schools and said the District is awaiting more data, including any irregularities from subsequent testing years, and requesting further assistance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) before undertaking a more complete probe.

"We are asking to partner with the state to get more comprehensive data for 2009, 2010, and 2011 so we can understand where we need to investigate, and we also ask the Pennsylvania Department of Education to assist us in that investigation," said Fran Newberg, the District's deputy chief of accountability and educational technology.

In July, PDE directed 40 districts across the state to investigate a total of 89 schools that were flagged multiple times for statistical irregularities in a recently surfaced July 2009 report. The report used statistical analysis to look for suspicious erasure patterns, improbable jumps in schools' scores, and unlikely jumps in student performance levels, among other things.

In Philadelphia, 28 District schools and 10 seven charters were deemed worthy of further inquiry.

Typically, district investigations into possible cheating involve interviews with students and staff. In this case, however, District officials relied solely on an analysis of the data provided to them by PDE, which they criticized as incomplete and not sufficiently comprehensive to warrant full-fledged inquiries.

"What we have is very vague allegations against schools," said Daniel Piotrowski, a staffer in the District's accountability office. "As of now, we don't have the type of data to really start an investigation knowing that there is going to be more information coming in a month or so from PDE."

Similar forensic analyses of 2010 and 2011 results on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams are expected sometime in September.

PDE spokesperson Tim Eller declined to comment on any specific district reports, but emphasized that they are only a "first step" in the process of determining if there was cheating on the PSSA exams.

"The department will conduct its own review and analysis of the forensic data, as well as the reports provided by the districts, to determine if further action is necessary," said Eller.

At fifteen of the schools the District was asked to investigate, officials said they were able to "explain away" the suspicious results simply by reviewing the data provided by PDE.

Seven of those schools were flagged only for things like unexpected changes in the participation rates of particular subgroups.

"There is no real reason to believe that these schools modified student information improperly," said Piotrowski.

Another eight were flagged for some combination of factors that District officials determined were neither abnormal nor suspicious. Some of those schools had unusually high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures or improbable jumps in the percentage of students scoring proficient, but the District determined that additional investigations were unnecessary.

Thirteen schools, however, were flagged for a combination of suspicious erasure patterns and unlikely changes in student performance levels.

At Wagner Middle School in West Oak Lane, for example, dozens of 7th graders had their response sheets flagged for highly suspicious numbers of incorrect answers that were erased and changed to the correct answer. Between 2008 and 2009, the percentage of Wagner 7th graders scoring proficient in both reading and math jumped more than 23 percentage points.

Results such as those warrant a further look, said District officials, although it is not confirmed that Wagner is among the 13 schools.

Officials also concluded that they should "step up" their monitoring protocols at some schools during future administrations of the exam. One possibility is using a "tiered model" that could result in some schools not being allowed to handle their own testing materials.

Though they expressed numerous concerns with the 2009 forensic analysis, District officials said they were not attempting to discredit the report and stressed that they take any allegations of cheating seriously.

If improper conduct is uncovered, "people can lose jobs and will lose jobs," said Newberg.  "But we want to have as much information as we can before we go marching down that road."

The charter schools flagged did their own investigations. The Charter High School of Architecture and Design (CHAD), which had six flags, said its review "did not discover any cheating on the part of our students and we checked this very carefully."

Instead, the irregularities were caused "some carelessness on our part," according to CEO Peter Kountz. He said there was a "mix up" with the testing company regarding the proper demographic coding for students, and because the school missed its own labeling mistakes it didn't make allowable corrections in time.

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 15, 2011 9:27 pm

So, Ackerman's investigation found that Ackerman did nothing wrong but that Ackerman can fire teachers as scapegoats if she feels like it. Why does she get paid so well yet have 0 accountability or responsibility for anything that happens?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 15, 2011 9:52 pm

Simple. Ackerman gets away with it because her supporters (small in numbers as they are) SHOW UP and publicly support her in protests, SRC meetings, on street corners etc. Ackerman's detractors sit around and "B****H" on the Public School Notebook's blog (anonymously, of course.)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 15, 2011 10:55 pm

Did you ever think that her critics are afraid they will lose their jobs if they speak out? Look at you: YOU posted anonymously TOO!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 4:00 pm

Don't question the Queen's actions as she does everything she does for"The Children." Ackerman sent out Ackerman's investigators to determine if Ackerman's schools cheated. Ackerman's investigators said no cheating when they reported to Ackerman.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 15, 2011 10:05 pm

Abandon hope...

I thought that in light of all the attention cheating has received, the SDP would make at least a half-hearted effort to confront the truth.

Okay...that was dumb of me!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 15, 2011 10:46 pm

there has to be a way that we can expose the truth....cheating is happening all over this district. Not because teachers want to cheat...we have nothing to gain. But Ackerman pressures the principals....and s*#t flows downstream.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 4:18 pm

Everybody knows the truth--of course, it goes on everywhere because of these testing maniacs and people like the Queen,

Submitted by Phantom Poster (not verified) on August 16, 2011 12:13 am

Great - I can sleep better tonight knowing that the charter high school found no evidence of wrongdoing. What a joke....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 4:11 pm

I agree 100%. What a total farce they are, stealing money from the real schools so the provider can make more money. The rich get richer. It must be nice to never have to be responsible to any outside group. Pretty good racket.

Submitted by Inspired_Apple on August 16, 2011 1:52 am

...Frank Murphy has a very interesting blog called, "Confessions of an Urban Principal" that discusses (in detail) the lengths at which some higher ups went to see results. No one was mentioned by name, but this was going on long before Dr. Ackerman came into the picture.

I think her reinforcement & incentivized approach only amplified the problem -- but the cheating definitely didn't *start* with her.

Is there any other profession, instance or circumstance where organizations violating an ethical code are asked to investigate themselves? I mean...we all joke around about the charter schools not finding wrong-doing & the district only found "very vague allegations" against the schools...but seriously

IN WHAT OTHER CIRCUMSTANCE ARE YOU RESPONSIBLE FOR INVESTIGATING CORRUPTION ON YOURSELF?! Anyone? The district should have absolutely NO hands in this. At least they asked they asked the PDE for help.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 7:23 am

Frank Murphys school was flagged in this.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on August 16, 2011 8:13 am

If you look at the PSSA data on Meade it would seem that the flag, like many other flags across the district, is just that. If you were going to cheat, you would probably not want your scores to go down on 7 of the 12 tests

This is not to say cheating did not occur in the SDP, you can look at Cayuga, John Marshall, and Wagner's scores and decide for yourself. But data, just the data, doesn't bear out some of the schools on the list as cheaters. 



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 10:16 am

Okay, so who's going to leak the names of the 13 schools? Inquiring minds, and all that.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 12:30 pm


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 4:42 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with you. No investigation is going to implicate Ackerman. We want to know what is going to happen to all the great teachers who were laid off!!!!!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 2:18 pm

I think the first person who needs to loose her job in this debacle is Fran Newburg.

Does she appear to be interested in anything other than a cover-up?

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2011 7:44 pm

The erasers are not "very vague allegations against schools," Mr. Piotrowski. The more blatant cheating that I see each year is teachers helping students answer questions during the testing. I have seen teachers reading passages for students, telling them when an answer is incorrect, reminding them of how to do a math problem, etc. This is rampant. Everyone with 2 cents knows not to do it if someone from outside the building is present. There is also the "prepping" that goes on. I have seen teachers go over test questions / prompts before the test. I have seen this done before and during testing. There is not test security - tests are left in rooms with open access to even students.

When I have said anything to administration, I get a "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" response. As long as test scores go up, he/she doesn't care. I'm sure these testing "helps" are not unique to Philly schools. That said, I did not see this happen when we administered Terra Nova and SAT 9.

Schools like Strawberry Mansion, who former principal was one of the $10,000 "Promise academy" recipients, is just one example of a school which has "gamed" the testing for years. Other high schools have been told to follow the SM model. I'm sure the same was done at Vaux and Univ. City where she worked this year. Did it help students learn?

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on August 16, 2011 8:04 pm

Now that is interesting because I ran a diagnostic - prescritpive reading program at UCHS for 18 years back in the day. We had a Great team of certified reading specialists and we collaboratively developed our Mastery Learinging Reading Program. We measured student growth using a variety of formal and informal assessment techniques.

We also taught reading using just about every method possible, measured its results in a non-threatening manner and debated ad nauseam the best practices in the teaching of reading.

I am very interested in seeing the PSSA results for Uni this year. If there are any improbable results, I will jump all over it!

I loved teaching reading. Every gain of disabled readers comes through hard work and growth happens very slowly. There are no miracles. It takes a great teacher who knows what she or he is doing. It also takes a whole lot of caring....

Also, high school students hardly ever change thier answers at all. I could hardly ever get them to review their answers and think it over. Just the fact that there were many erasures is convincing evidence that there were improprieties. The fact that there are so many wrong to right erasures which defy probability is, by itself, clear and convincing evidence that there was cheating.

I will debate those issues with anyone. I once ate, slept and drank reading instruction and the development of reading ability.

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