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New evidence: Philadelphia test cheating is likely far worse than previously revealed

By the Notebook on Aug 16, 2012 06:17 PM

­By Benjamin Herold and Dale Mezzacappa
for WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook

The scope of the Philadelphia School District’s problem with suspicious erasures on state standardized tests is far more widespread than officials have publicly revealed.

But so far state and District investigators have launched deeper probes into suspected cheating at only a third of the 53 schools where strong evidence was found.

Confidential documents and information obtained by Newsworks and the Public School Notebook show that many of the 53 schools were flagged across multiple grades, subjects, and years for extremely high rates of “wrong-to-right” erasures on test answer forms (see graphic). The documents include results from erasure analyses conducted in 2010 and 2011, which state officials have declined to make public.

In response to those findings, the District put in place tough new test-security measures last spring. The result was huge drops in scores at nearly all of the 53 schools, according to preliminary 2012 PSSA results obtained by Newsworks and the Notebook.

At F.S. Edmonds Elementary in Northwest Philadelphia, for example, student PSSA response sheets were flagged for suspicious erasures 23 of a possible 24 times between 2009 and 2011. In 2012, the school’s scores plummeted by nearly 50 percentage points in both reading and math. 

But Edmonds so far appears to have avoided direct scrutiny by state and local investigators.

The school is one of 22 determined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to be of “lower priority” and thus not subjected to on-the-ground questioning about cheating. Documents show that many of those schools showed major signs of possible cheating.

Even with forensic or statistical evidence, cheating can only be proven through eyewitness testimony or admissions of wrongdoing.

A spokesperson from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) declined to respond to requests for confirmation and explanation, saying the department would not comment on an ongoing investigation. In a statement, District officials offered little more.

But documents and conversations with sources paint a picture of a widespread problem that officials are attempting to address with a limited number of boots on the ground.

“No one is really moving at an aggressive pace on this,” said one source with firsthand knowledge of the investigation.

“The truth of it is no one wants [Philadelphia] to be the next Atlanta.”

A tiered investigation

Over the last two years, a number of big-city school districts, including Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, have been rocked by standardized test cheating scandals.

The most stunning was in Atlanta, where 178 administrators were formally implicated in an investigation that proved cheating at 44 schools, damaged the legacy of former superintendent Beverly Hall, and raised questions about the wisdom of relying on high-stakes standardized test results to measure student learning and reward schools and principals.

Pennsylvania’s investigation of possible cheating on state tests began in earnest last August, after the Notebook/NewsWorks reported on a previously unreleased “forensic audit” of 2009 PSSA results that revealed suspicious erasures and other statistical irregularities – but not hard evidence of cheating – at 10 charter schools and traditional schools in 38 districts, including Philadelphia.

The state has cleared many of those districts and charters of wrongdoing. Others were told they would continue to be monitored. The department is continuing investigations in 10 districts and charters across the state, including Philadelphia.

State officials divided the 53 Philadelphia District schools under suspicion into three tiers, each getting a different type of follow-up:

Tier One: In January, the Pennsylvania Office of the Inspector General initiated what appear to be aggressive on-the-ground investigations at 11 Tier One schools.  Among those schools are Roosevelt Middle and Cayuga Elementary, where teachers have come forward anonymously to allege cheating by administrators. Last month, state officials told the Inquirer that investigations at Tier One schools have yielded some confessions and other hard evidence of cheating.

Tier Two: In early 2012, state officials told the District – beset by financial woes and in the midst of a massive restructuring – to handle the follow-up probes at the 20 Tier Two schools itself.

That group includes Strawberry Mansion High, Gen. Louis Wagner Middle, and a number of other schools where the state-commissioned analysis found egregious patterns of wrong-to-right erasures over multiple years.

The law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP is helping to investigate the Tier Two schools.

The firm is offering pro bono support to the District. To date, its lawyers have contacted only a handful of the Tier Two schools, according to sources with firsthand knowledge of the investigation.

District General Counsel Michael A. Davis said the District is “fully committed to conducting a thorough investigation.”

Tier Three: These 22 schools were slated for additional review of an unspecified nature. That list includes Edmonds and a number of other schools flagged heavily for suspicious erasures. State and District officials would not comment on reports from sources that none of the Tier Three schools have been targeted for on-the-ground questioning.

A widespread problem

In Pennsylvania, the PSSA exams are administered in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 11. Only math and reading scores are used for accountability purposes.

Forensic and statistical evidence of possible cheating on the exams is overwhelming at schools across all three of the state’s investigatory tiers, according to documents and information obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks.

Take Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson, a Tier Two high school in North Philadelphia.

In 2011, 96 percent of Elverson’s 11th graders scored proficient or advanced in math.

But last fall, a state-commissioned erasure analysis found that four of every five student response sheets for math exams administered at the school that year had huge numbers of incorrect answers that had been erased and changed to the correct answer.

After the District imposed tough new test security measures at Elverson in 2012, the school’s math scores dropped 71 percentage points in a single year.

All told, 49 of the 53 District schools involved in the cheating probe were flagged for high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures in more than one grade, subject, or year, indicating that possible cheating was not an isolated incident.

Twelve of the schools – including six not assigned by state officials to Tier One – were flagged in every tested grade and subject in a given year, indicating the possibility of coordinated, systemic cheating. 

And preliminary school-by-school PSSA results from 2012, also obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks, show that 51 of 53 schools saw drops in both reading and math, most of them significant, after tougher test security was put in place last spring.

Seven of those schools experienced drops of at least 40 percentage points in at least one subject. Nineteen of the schools saw scores drop at least 20 points in both reading and math.

A typical example

General Philip Kearny Elementary, a K-8 school in Northern Liberties, is often lauded as an exemplary high-achieving, high-poverty school.

In 2009, Kearny was flagged for suspicious erasures in 3rd-grade math and 4th-grade reading.

In 2010, the school was flagged in 3rd-, 5th-, and 7th-grade math and 5th-grade reading.

And in 2011, Kearny was flagged in both reading and math in 5th, 6th, and 7th grades.

A flag in a given grade-subject combination indicate that at least 10 percent of student response sheets had five or more wrong-to-right erasures.  An average PSSA response sheet contains less than one such erasure, according to state officials.

Over the three-year period, Kearny’s test scores steadily rose.  In 2011, 72 percent of the school’s students scored proficient in reading and 76 percent scored proficient in math.

But in 2012, after test security was strengthened, Kearny’s scores plummeted about 22 points in both subjects.

Experts stress that numbers alone do not prove cheating.

“Unless and until people confess, I don’t think it’s definitive,” said Andrew Porter, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. 

But to date, say sources, no effort has been made to uncover that kind of hard evidence of wrongdoing at Kearny, a Tier Two school not yet visited by the District’s pro bono attorneys.

Next steps

Although District officials would not confirm or comment on details of the cheating probe, District General Counsel Davis offered a statement:

“It is important that accuracy and integrity not be sacrificed during this process. Because the investigation into allegations of testing integrity violations on PSSA exams is ongoing, the District is unable to comment any further.”

Robert McGrogan, the president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the union that represents principals, says he expects action soon on some of the 11 schools where state investigators have been active.

“I think the likelihood exists in Tier One schools that administrators may very well have sanctions applied,”  McGrogan said.

“I respect that people will be held accountable for their actions, as long as we’re talking about facts and not suppositions.”

Once school resumes in September, the Tier Two investigations begun by the District and attorneys from Morgan Lewis are expected to continue. Sources say that list includes Huey and Lamberton elementary schools as well as Elverson, a high school. 

Attorneys from Morgan Lewis are also expected to begin visiting other Tier Two schools this fall.

“The District expects that the bulk of its investigation will be completed by the end of the calendar year,” wrote Davis in a statement.

State officials have offered no timeline for deciding what to do about the schools in Tier Three.

More on this story at the Notebook.




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Comments (40)

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on August 16, 2012 9:01 pm

53 public or charter schools is a very large number. What percentage of publicly funded schools in the city is that? 20%? 25%? I would also like to see how many of the schools are high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. A breakdown by grade would also be help. I suspect that the amount of cheating will increase substantially starting in 3rd grade when the PSSAs start.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 9:36 pm

Look can see grades, years and subjects all broken out.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2012 1:17 pm

does it really matter what grades they are,they all cheated.a total disservice to the children and parents of philadelphia... totally

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 9:12 pm

Perfect way to start a new school year. For some time now, those that are inside the district have known about the unreal numbers at Strawberry Mansion and Cayuga, not to leave behind Roosevelt MS.
If true, the administrators should not be the only ones to receive sanctions. The entire staff should be removed. There are testing coordinators, lead teachers, etc that are also involved when testing is done.
Dr. Hite, you ready for this?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 9:59 pm

No wonder Principal's Convocation was cancelled for tomorrow Friday...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 11:25 pm

That's not even mentioning scores that went down in schools where "soft-cheating" occurred. I know that many teachers in my school gave extra instructions to students during the PSSA in 2010-2011 that they didn't give in 2011-2012. You can see it reflected in the test score drops.

Our principal even passed students who cheated to keep her graduation numbers up and anyone who spoke up got no support and only punishment. The whole system is rotten and we teachers are disincentivized from doing the right thing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2012 1:35 pm

cheating is cheating,you people are on drugs...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 4:39 am

When will AYP results be listed for all schools - district and charter?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 4:21 am

The District needs to look at schools which experienced dramatic drops in scores - 20 percentage points in both reading and math is dramatic. That said, if a schools scored dropped back to a level from the previous year, then that is not a dramatic drop. In high school, the only tested year is 11th grade and, for example, the class of 2011 11th graders may have been stronger academically than the class of 2012 11th graders. That can account for a 10-15% different in PSSA scores.

That said, it looks like Nixon - who was principal at Wagner in 2009, then ran the Northwest Region where many of the "flagged" schools are located, and now is CAO, is made of Teflon just like her mentor Ackerman. Nixon needs to resign and take her "friends" with her. Nixon has surrounded herself at 440 with her crew rather than find the best people to move this school district forward.

Submitted by Joan Taylor on August 17, 2012 8:39 am

The best thing for public education in Philadelphia right now would be to get all scores made public and have clear explanations made to the public (including me) about how categories like Proficient are formed and changed year by year.

I think erasure pattern results and all other forensic data should be made public for all schools as well. People can look at the results and figure out what is real. The PA Dept of Ed has as little interest in seeing what they've spawned as the SRC does, and we're only going to get self-serving interpretations of the data from them.

I have always cared about test scores, at both bad and good schools where I've taught. I think they can be an informative measure of achievement and that parents deserve an impartial evaluation of how their child measures up in school, but these tests are only one measure, and relying on them so exclusively and punitively guarantees that they will be misused.

I know that Ackerman used humiliation tactics on principals to goad them into producing higher test scores, and many of them returned to their schools and used the same tactics on their teachers. It's no wonder--but no excuse--that people with less backbone succumbed to cheating to avoid punishment.

We need to come clean and quickly. These new reports of cheating come just as the public is becoming more aware of the problems with charters, and now the spotlight is back on us. We need to move past this by getting the information out there and providing clear explanations to the public. It will hurt, and it is one more unfair burden for most public educators to bear, but it is necessary if we want to rebuild public trust.

Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on August 25, 2012 6:23 pm

well said

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 3:33 pm

This entire fiasco is a reflection of trickle down coercion and manipulation. The Super imparts pressure to perform on Assistant Supers. The Assistant Supers berate and demoralize principals in meetings for not making AYP and praise others for meeting the goals by any means necessary. Principals that have made AYP are encouraged to "Come On Down" at Convocation as if they are on the Price Is Right while remaining colleagues are seated in the Chairs of Shame. Praised Principals are promoted while the Scorned are demoted. Principals go back to their buildings and praise teachers that somehow manage to score leaps and bounds above their colleagues, leaving remaining faculty to feel like red-headed stepchildren. This culture was created from the top. Period.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on August 17, 2012 4:38 pm

I have made speeches before the SRC and Ackerman herself and written much about the need to change the "administrative culture" of our school district.

We have become what I call an "unhealthy organization." What you read here are symptoms of an unhealthy organization which has become toxic in many ways. To me it is so sad.

We became that way only after the inception of high stakes testing and the test and punish mentality that has been imposed upon us. There also is a "cause and effect" relationship between these symptoms of toxicity and the state takeover of our schools and the constant threat to "takeover" public schools by private entities.

The "blame the teacher' mentality and dictatorial practices of our recent history which many of us face on a daily basis is destroying the community us. A healthy community is the essential ingredient of all effective schools and all effective school systems.

When you are managed by "threat and intimidation" what we read here is what we get. It is happening in every city in our nation. It is not only happening in Philadelphia.

It is a consequence of poor leadership, poor management, and poor governance. It is caused by misguided public policy.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on August 17, 2012 5:35 pm

No organization can thrive if it uses threat and intimidation. This principle holds true in societies as a whole as well. In the South during Jim Crow, history showed us that the threat and intimidation system of Jim Crow and its creation of a two-tiered, oppressive, race-based society caused a great amount of revolt and protest, ultimately leading to the collapse of Jim Crow laws. The same outcome happened for Apartheid South Africa. Threat and intimidation oppression in the Middle East has caused people to revolt and enact changes in places such as Libya and Egypt.

An effective society is based on trust and giving the masses a voice. The same is true in an effective organization. The leaders need to listen to the employees and provide an effective work environment for them to voice their concerns. Employees need to feel that they have some input and autonomy. Employees need to feel empowered and appreciated and their needs to be transparency and trust at all levels. This kind of organization means less control and power for the people at the top, but at the same time, those on the lower rungs of the organization are more likely to trust those at the top when the organization is more democratic.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on August 18, 2012 11:26 am

NO--It is not misguided. It was designed to fail to create a disaster that needs a savior--Charters, of all silly things. Naomi Klein 101.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2012 1:58 pm

principals do not respond to any kind of input from anyone,this is why things are the way that they are because they want to run things there way,its not a democracy its a dictatorship...what a discrace,they will never change..

Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on August 25, 2012 6:03 pm

I can say that the "tone" of my former administrator changed quite a bit once Ackerman left.
Her tone went from "you better do x,y, and z because I am being held accountable for your [the faculty and staff]'s efforts and told to write people up--to "we're all in this together"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2012 9:35 am

As retired 32 year veteran of the School District of Philadelphia, all I can say is DUH! Most teachers predicted this outcome.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2012 1:28 pm

I used to work in the Office of Accountability at SDP. I approached the director on several occasions to raise the alarm about the statistical improbability of the scores being 'obtained'. There was little to no interest. Previous (and current) leadership does not have the political will or the mathematical acumen to address this issue.

Submitted by Gayle Robinson (not verified) on August 21, 2012 9:06 pm

This is all being done now to discredit all Public Education...There has been cheating in the charter schools, but they are not held under the same light and it's much worst.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2012 1:24 pm

As a teacher, I have seen the negative test results that occur when teachers do not test their own students. Good teachers create a caring and nurturing classroom environment. When young students are given proctors who do not seem to care, they will sometimes perform poorly. I think the students being tested by someone other than their teachers should be factored in to the lower scores, especially for younger students.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2012 1:38 pm

pardon me miss, you sound like mother teresa,you people need to teach these children some life skills to enter this hard world out here...theres no jobs,nothing,burger king is not hiring....get it togeather the sky is not i repeat not made of blue cotten candy,and no ther is not any unicorns running around outside of your school... you live in a fantasy world thats why these children are messed up !!!!!!!

Submitted by Aimee (not verified) on August 24, 2012 2:32 pm

You obviously do not work with children. My point is that students can sense when adults do not care. Students live up to expectations set. Your comments tell me that you are cynical and need to stay out of a discussion if you have no hope for our students. You can call me names if that makes you feel better, but I hope your negativity is not felt by my students, who I know can succeed. And by the way, many questions were skewed unfairly to our students' demographics. But I know you are unconcerned with factors that lead to finding reasons why. I am not making excuses- I am looking at facts.

Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on August 25, 2012 6:22 pm

I agree with you..... it is easy to criticize and use the name ANONYMOUS.
Keep on teaching with the facts Amiee.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 5:40 pm
ive been with the school district for 26 years lady,how long have you been with the s.d.p. ????
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on August 25, 2012 6:30 pm

You have a point...teachers are to teach by differentiation then test "military style" like the for the SAT, armed forces and real world high stakes testing unless they are smart enough to recognize their rights to alternative testing.......

Once again we as educators are told to do one thing and then expect the kids to magically do another with same information but a different setting...

You can not expect kids to win this way,...unless they have parents who are willing to go the extra mile and seek out additional supports [often involving money] and of course exposure to all the "culturally test connected" things....

Submitted by Seth Kulick on August 23, 2012 7:31 am

Is there a listing yet of the AYP results? We received the notice for my daughter's school last Saturday, so I assume everybody knows about their own school, but are the results for all schools in one place? Even aside from the lower test scores, the AYP goal keeps going up, of course.

Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2012 12:23 pm

Schools got their preliminary results (%proficient) before school was out in June.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2012 4:00 pm

They haven't been posted on the PDE website because districts have a right to challenge the data. It is a small window. The results for all schools should be publically posted soon. But all schools have their own results.

Submitted by Seth Kulick on August 24, 2012 5:12 pm

thanks for the explanation. I hope that as the number of schools not making AYP increases, as it surely is, and as it must as the goal increases, the focus will be on how wrong it is to evaluate a school on the basis of a test like this, rather than which schools made it and which didn't. Or, of course, what's wrong with the teachers whose students didn't make the goal. Mr. Ramos wants to pit teacher vs. parent, but it seems obvious that there is a common need to fight against the distortions of education caused by this testing obsession. That's my view as a 5th grade parent, anyway. There are movements against testing elsewhere in the country - in Texas, the movement by the principals in NY, etc. Why not here? It's not just the funding issue, although it does all tie together.

Submitted by tom-104 on August 24, 2012 6:48 pm

There is a national organization fighting the testing obsession and what it is doing to public schools. It is United Opt Out National at:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2012 1:58 pm

I worked at a high school in the Mt. Airy/Germantown section of Philadelphia where the then English Department Chair and Assistant VP sat in an open room and literally leafed through EVERY page of EVERY student's PSSA booklets and then called them down to "write more."

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on August 24, 2012 4:55 pm


I'd be interested to hear more about your experience.  Please feel free to contact me at



Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on August 25, 2012 6:15 pm

My understanding is that can not be done any longer, unless of course it is on the "Q.T." [the quiet tip]

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2012 7:02 am

Why is there silence on the "cheating?" There has been nothing in the Inquirer and no new reporting from the Notebook. Is there a coverup at 440 because so many in power are implicated?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2012 8:14 am

The notebook continues to report on this issue. When there is new information I'm sure it will be on here. How often do you want them to write about it?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 1:29 pm
WHere is the list of the 53 schools named?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 23, 2013 1:07 pm
Are we still talking about this? Schools are closed, teachers don't have jobs, students aren't even being afforded basic services, and we are still talking about this? What exactly do you think will change once "new" information is revealed? How will that affect the current situation in the district? Priorities.
Submitted by mihai (not verified) on June 4, 2014 4:21 am
Well of course students cheat. They always have. The question we should be asking is why is this happening. And the answer is because the information is not getting across to the and they need to do this. If they could learn and understand everything in class then they wouldn't need to bother with cheating. asigurari
Submitted by laina (not verified) on June 4, 2014 10:29 am
A big issue in education is that we need to teach them general knowledge until they decide what they want to specialise in, and this has provoked a lot of unpleasantness and many discussions between teachers, students and parents. laina

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