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State cheating probe was widened to involve more than 50 District schools

By Benjamin Herold on Feb 16, 2012 12:33 PM

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook/WHYY’s NewsWorks 

Pennsylvania’s inquiry into possible cheating on state standardized tests in Philadelphia recently widened to involve more than 50 District schools, far more than previously believed to have attracted the attention of state officials.

But with the administration of the 2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams barely a month away, District officials say they don’t know how many of those schools are under active investigation or how the state is deciding which schools warrant further scrutiny.

Officials from the District’s Office of Accountability and Assessment confirmed this new development in the state’s highly secretive investigation.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) “requested additional information on some schools for additional analysis,” wrote District Deputy Chief of Educational Technology Fran Newburg and Executive Director of Accountability and Assessment Daniel Piotrowski in response to questions submitted via email by the Notebook/NewsWorks.

“They have asked us not to disclose this list,” they added.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the investigation, however, told the Notebook/NewsWorks that in late 2011, state officials began asking questions about “PSSA administration for the past three years” from “on or around 53 schools” in the District.

Newburg and Piotrowski stressed that not all of the schools from which the state has requested further information are under active investigation. 

But they also said the District does not yet know how many of its schools have been, or will be, visited by representatives of the state Inspector General’s office.

The Philadelphia Inquirer previously reported  that agents from the Inspector General's office had begun interviewing teachers at 13 schools identified by District officials last August as warranting additional scrutiny based on suspicious results on the 2009 PSSA.

Now, it appears that the state expanded the pool of Philadelphia schools deemed worthy of attention based on analyses of PSSA results from two additional years – 2010 and 2011.

Newburg and Piotrowski confirmed that the state is using information from the 2010 and 2011 analyses, but said PDE has not provided any data to the District.

PDE has “not shared the specific analyses or thresholds used” to identify the schools that were targeted for further questioning and possible investigation, they said.

The status of the state’s analyses of 2010 and 2011 PSSA results is a source of contention.

Last summer, state Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis ordered “forensic audits” of the 2010 and 2011 exams. The directive came after the Notebook asked for, received, and published the results of a state-commissioned  forensic audit of 2009 PSSA results that flagged dozens of schools statewide – including 28 District schools –  for suspicious test results.

Forensic audits look for suspicious patterns of wrong-to-right erasures on student response sheets and statistical anomalies such as unlikely swings in student proficiency rates from year to year. They provide fodder for further investigation, but do not prove cheating in and of themselves.

PDE spokesperson Tim Eller told the Notebook in September 2011 that PDE had received the analyses of 2010 and 2011 PSSA results.

Last month, however, Eller seemed to reverse course, writing in an email to the Notebook that “PDE does not have the [2010 and 2011] forensic audits.”

PDE has also refused several requests made by the Notebook under the state’s Right to Know law for documents relating to the 2010 and 2011 forensic audits. An appeal of their most recent refusal is currently being considered by the state’s Office of Open Records.

State officials declined to comment or to clarify the status of the 2010 and 2011 analyses.

Now, with administration of the 2012 PSSA exams is scheduled to begin in March, District officials are trying to improve test administration procedures districtwide and target certain schools for heightened test security measures.

“At all schools, monitors will be tasked to do more in the schools and stay longer when they visit,” said Newburg and Piotrowski. “Some schools will have multiple monitors.”

In addition, the District has changed its policies for handling testing materials. At some schools, said Newburg and Piotrowksi, access to testing materials will be limited to central office employees. Some schools will not be allowed to open the boxes containing their school’s exams until just a day or two before the test is to be administered.

To be safe, said Newburg and Piotrowski, “We have decided to have more stringent requirements than PDE.” 

Notebook Contributing Editor Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting for this article.

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Comments (18)

Submitted by tom-104 on February 16, 2012 3:10 pm

This insane educational crisis brought to us by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is evaluated by noted education historian and education policy analyst Diane Ravitch in the new New York Review of Books in the article "Schools We Can Envy" at:

Also see this related column in today's Washington Post by Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York and chair of the department of African and African-American Studies. He is also co-director of the Urban Studies Program, African-American History 20th Century.

"Are public schools unfairly blamed for America’s economic woes?" at:

Submitted by Matthew C. (not verified) on February 16, 2012 6:17 pm

As always, Follow The Money.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 16, 2012 4:58 pm

Can you clarify whether this number of district schools refers only to PSD-run schools or if it includes charters in the Philadelphia School District?

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on February 16, 2012 5:35 pm

This number refers to only District-run schools. Unknown if additional charters were identified.


Submitted by Matthew C. (not verified) on February 16, 2012 6:11 pm

Of course, Charters are money makers for the corporate types so all is right with the world.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 7:39 pm

Maybe they should start using armored cars to bring in the test minutes before students take it, have the National Guard administer the test, and have the CIA interrogate teachers.

Or, we could stop determining how "good" or "bad" a school is on the basis of a single set of tests that waste a large portion of the school year and predict parental income levels more than any other variable.

One or the other. Schools that cheat on these tests are merely responding to the environment in which they must operate. A solid argument can be made that NOT cheating is a disservice to the students if you know your school is good despite the test results. Bad scores can mean closing the school, becoming "empowered" (quite the opposite, really), or worse.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 18, 2012 8:31 am

In the end, history will describe this NCLB RTTT period in public education as the GREATEST mistake in American history. It will hasten our societal decline and END the Republic. And if you hasten to describe this statement as excessively negative and "off point" then you really don't truly understand the gravity of our situation...

Submitted by Teach (not verified) on February 19, 2012 9:37 am

We don't have to open the boxes before they're administered - as long as there's a way to get extra booklets if they're needed within an hour of the test.

It's exceptionally suspect that the state - a huge supporter of charter schools - has targeted only public schools for further examination. Cheating has obviously occurred - encouraged by the Ackerman administration, where principals were told on a weekly basis that they'd be fired or demoted if their schools didn't make AYP. However, many of our students are very capable of scoring proficient on the test and it's insulting that the state finds that unlikely.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 7:06 pm

Charter schools HAVE been investigated, but they are their own LEAs and have not readily volunteered this info -- why would they?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 10:54 am

It has come up recently among staff in my school... Do our PA systems offer the ability to listen into the classroom? We have a newer PA system with big silver boxes mounted. We are confident that staff doesn't do it (and doesn't know how) but the debate is over whether the technology exists in the building.

Anyone have any insight?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 11:06 am

It would violate the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act unless all parties consent.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 4:04 pm

Violate doesn't mean it's not possible. If the PSD didn't violate things, including basic human morals, a lot of today's problems wouldn't be....

Submitted by Sam G. (not verified) on February 21, 2012 2:44 pm

I wouldn't believe and neither should all clear thinking persons, anything these folks have to say. Money Talks..........Some people will do anything if you pay them.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 21, 2012 6:58 pm

Where's the outrage when it involves district schools???

Sounds like a double standard to me.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 7, 2012 10:37 am

There are other ways of cheating for PSSA which pass inadverted, for example, the student says that he doesn' know the answer and the administer suggests him/her, to leave the bubble blank. Next day, very early in the morning, Literacy coach and Math coachs show up in the school and proceed to fill the bubbles left blank with the correct answers. Meanwhile, in the school evreyone question
themselves, how is it that the school made it?

Submitted by A Touch of Sense (not verified) on March 7, 2012 11:12 am

Good point. The principals always have the keys and they are the most likely to perpetrate, assist, or enable cheating -- and then say they knew nothing about it! They are the ones who can be in the building when all others are gone.

What are the ways to cheat on the constructed response items?

Submitted by Baldoyle (not verified) on September 3, 2014 1:31 am

This cast doubt on its authenticity - Proponents of charter schools - should be targeted for public schools for further examination exam cheating case should not happen again, principals already know these things, these people will been fired or demoted, although very much like our students to pass the test, but I suggest that they should try to learn, rather than cheating during exams. Baldoyle Residents

Submitted by Hines (not verified) on September 3, 2014 6:40 am

Schools should follow what the purpose of the PA State Department Web site posted the tests show that should encourage all students and help them to continue their efforts to encourage students to try these tasks, and loaded into the test. Hughes

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