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Suspicious erasure patterns at 53 schools

By the Notebook on Aug 16, 2012 03:52 PM
Photo: Todd Vachon for NewsWorks

The state ordered investigations in 53 Philadelphia schools based on evidence of suspicious erasures that showed up on forensic analysis of the tests from 2009-11. Test scores went down sharply in 2012 at many of these schools after new test security measures were put into place.

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Comments (55)

Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on August 16, 2012 7:15 pm

My thought is if it is a k to 8 school there may be more erasures.
If the child is an ESOL or SpEd. student there might be mmore erasures.

My question is "are my thoughts about students considered when evaluating the erasures?"

Submitted by ANON 452 (not verified) on August 16, 2012 7:02 pm

They are not just looking for erasures, but WRONG to RIGHT changes. Those types of erasures are especially suspicious as high numbers of them are highly unusual.

Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on August 20, 2012 8:02 pm

These patterns are pretty inescapable evidence once you examine the methods they used to determine suspicious erasures. It is, as someone said, only concerned with changes from wrong to right answers. It is normed against a statewide averages of wrong-to-right erasures. Statistically, there is a billionth of a percent of a chance that this was not cheating.

The question we face regarding the indicated schools is not if they cheated; it is who is responsible, how did they cheat, and why.

The answer to the question of why will have to address some deep, systemic problems that affect the entire district, or it will just keep happening. We have to stop trying to keep up appearance and get our hands dirty.

There is a culture here that rewards on-paper results without regard to the truth.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 8:21 pm

SO what's next?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 10:41 pm

Just give all the schools to Kenny Gamble--he'll learn em all goood.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 9:27 pm

Was Penny Nixon at Wagner in 2009? If so, will she be included in an investigation? How might that impact her current position?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 9:54 pm

Yes, Nixon was at Wagner in 2009. Then, she was moved to the Northwest Region - an area with a concentration of schools with questionable test scores. Then, Nixon worked with Ackerman at 400... So, yes, this should impact her current position.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 10:03 pm

Nixon is untouchable. Mark it down.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2012 11:13 pm

Ben and Dale:

Stop thinking Penny. Think Nixon.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 4:28 am

Ultimately, the building principal, regional administrators, CAO and Superintendent are responsible for a culture that rewarded test scores above all else. I know at least some building principals were told by the teachers that some colleagues were providing too much "help" to students during testing. This help included reading texts that shouldn't have been read, translation, "reminding" students how to do a math problem, nodding to show students their answer was correct (or incorrect), etc. I'm sure not all building principals wanted to hear it. They only wanted scores. Building principals under Ackerman/Nixon and Regional Superintendents were rewarded based on scores.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 7:48 am

Locke received almost $2 million in a federal School Improvement Grant.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 7:32 am

Look at Huey in 2011 - a hot mess. The principal, John Spencer, inherited a job from his father - a well connected member of the School District of Phila. Spencer, like far too many administrator, spent little time teaching. He has held downtown positions and regional office positions. Now, they give him another six figure job, principal, and he blows it again. When will the SDP clean shop of the many, many people placed in positions of power because of nepotism? When will the SRC realize that these so called leaders are totally incompetent and need to be terminated?

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Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on August 17, 2012 8:22 am

I read this article and all of these poignant comments with both humor and sadness. What it shows is the absolute absurdity of high stakes testing and adequate yearly progress. Both are fatally flawed concepts from their inception.

I ran a high school reading program for 20 years and diagnosed student's reading ability every year using both standardized and informal measures. I am a certified reading specialist with a Masters degree in Psychology of Reading from the once famous Temple Reading Clinic.

The most accurate standardized reading tests can only, at best, approximate reading ability. The older a student is, the wider the approximation becomes. Because of many psycho-cognitive factors, standardized reading tests are far from exact measures of reading ability. They are certainly not supportable as measures of "student cognitive achievement."

Add in teaching to the test, teaching the test, coaching during the test, and outright cheating, the data lacks any reasonable indicia of accuracy.

The notion that we can create a test that absolutely measures "proficiency" has no basis in fact whatsoever. The classifications, below basic, basic, proficient and advanced are arbitrarily determined cutoffs and are not consistent from test to test and state to state. Those classifications, have no correlation at all to actual "stages of developmental growth" in reading.

Back in the day when there was credibility in what we did, we gave every student in the school system a standardized reading test every year and tracked student scores. If a student changed schools we could still track the student's test scores from year to year. Testing just three levels makes no sense because you are testing different groups of students and comparing them to different groups of students.

My question is, and it is an ethical and moral question: When are we going to return to using both formal and informal diagnostic assessment to determine a student's true developmental needs and create growth plans for each and every student in their individual capacities?

The 'test and punish" mentality is Faustian and was conceived by those who want to justify the privatization of schools and the takeover of schools for private profit. I assure you that no privatized school can do any better at educating our young if all public schools are given the resources they need.

The most crucially important factor in the teaching of reading is small class size in elementary schools and the services of a certified reading specialist for every student who falls behind in reading.

Small group and individualized instruction has always been and always will be, at every level, the key factor in teaching children to read and the development of authentic reading ability. Of that I am sure....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 8:39 am

Thank you for your comments. At the high school level, the School District got rid of most reading specialists in the mid 1990s. Instead, students with learning disabilities are either taught by special educators, who often do not have any special preparation in reading, or classroom teachers who are told to "differentiate." Special educators are taught to make accommodations which often have nothing to do with supporting a student to improve his/her reading skills. This is evident in the IEPs written by special educators.

The other problem with the PSSA related to reading are the passages students must read. While some are relevant (e.g. teen driving laws), others are irrelevant to most teens. The poetry is often archaic and flowery. (Why poetry is on a standardized test is beyond me...) As you wrote, we need authentic reading / writing to improve students' skills.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on August 17, 2012 9:14 am

What happened is that they they cut the reading teachers to use the money to buy computers instead. I then morphed into an English and law teacher.

An experiment I would love to see happen is that the exact same California Achievement Test we used back then to screen students be given to our students today and compare results. Now that would be interesting wouldn't it?

I would bet my house and home that the amalgamated results would be roughly the same.

Was it Yogi Berra who said, "I've been teaching reading all kinds of different ways for years and years and the results never change. Half my students always score above average and half always score below average!"

As to the PSSA's in high school. They are the worst standardized tests I have ever been forced to use in my 34 years with the School District. You correctly point out one of its major flaws.

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Submitted by Joan Taylor on August 17, 2012 8:22 am

Thank you, Rich, for hitting the nail on the head.

At least in reading, which is the subject I know, there is only one way to produce a better reader, and that is to give each kid time to read books that the kid can actually read. Most kids have plenty of time to read at home, but they don't and they won't. If we want all of our students to be better readers, we have to provide opportunities for them to do so at school. Unfortunately, in these days of no school libraries, we teachers have to provide the books for our kids to use.

I have been a determined practitioner of Sustained Silent Reading in my classroom everyday. I work very hard at matching kids with books and thank God every day for Amazon Prime and Donors Choose. I never sit while my kids are reading silently. I circulate and track what they are reading. I talk to them about their books. They do really well on their PSSA's--although that is for many reasons. And yet I find myself constantly having to defend this practice, which does a much better job of preparing kids to take the standardized tests that are unavoidable in this day and age than any skill and drill. It is a challenge that can last months to get some students to become immersed in a book, but if we don't spent the time and money it takes to get students to experience that sort of bond with a book, we will not produce real readers. Drill won't do it, and reading Shakespeare in 8th grade won't do it. Kids need to spend time enjoying good books--and by good books, I mean their idea of a good book, not mine.

That's not to say that instructional time should not be spent on challenging material. Of course it should. But we need to get our kids comfortable with books, and that only happens with opportunity and encouragement (and maybe a little pressure). If we got more kids to be excited about books, we wouldn't have to worry about test scores. The proof would be in the pudding: we'd see more kids wandering about carrying trade books and we'd hear them talking about them.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on August 17, 2012 9:34 am

You obviously are an outstanding reading teacher. They should be listening to you. We had ten reading specialists at UCHS in the 70's and 80's. It took us about one and a half weeks to understand that skill and drill kills students' desire to read. We threw that stuff in the trash can where it belongs.

Authentic reading activity and authentic instruction using "Socratic questioning" to probe and develop comprehension is the only way to develop true reading ability.

It is also essential to understand the deep seated psychological issues that our reading disabled students go through. I could take the hardest, toughest, biggest and baddest student at Uni and reduce him to tears by exposing his inability to read well. Of course, I didn't. I worked through their facade to build a caring and trusting relationship with my students.

I assure you there are no "miracle cures" to reading disability. It takes a hard working, knowledgeable and caring teacher. Growth is slow and takes place over time. Those students certainly need more than test preparation.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 29, 2012 8:13 am

I have also found that sustained silent reading of books at or slightly above instructional reading levels produces better readers. I spend hundreds of dollars each year building my classroom library with books that my students want to read. I was told by my principal after a regional walk-through last year that the regional superintendent wanted me to stop this practice because it was not part of the middle school curriculum or planning and scheduling timeline or something. I dropped it from my lesson plans but continued it on the sly. Ah, the joy of teaching in the PSD where best practices are subversive activities.

Submitted by Fed Up Parent (not verified) on November 9, 2012 9:36 am
I so agree with your statement. it is even more ridiculous when we turn around and use these unsubstantiated test to build prisons. Further, the PA Dept of Education has the audacity to site that test scores dropped significantly because of heightened testing security measures. Are they for real? I know I won;t forget going to Harrisburg, writing letters, making phone calls to restore the cuts. We must never let these distractions keep us from believing our students are able to achieve and teachers are able to teach. Parent who is tired of the games people play to line their coffers with stocks in the prison system.
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Submitted by Denise Sargent (not verified) on August 17, 2012 10:45 am

Thank you Rich and Joan. I was a Special Ed. teacher. I just retired after almost 34 years with the SDP. I spent the majority of my career teaching at the elementary level and ended with quite a number of years at the high school level. I just couldn't take another day of Smart Goals, Do Now, Exit Ticket and let's not forget Corrective Reading and Corrective Math. I experienced the SDP trying to "correct" the mistakes at the high school level, that we tried to tell them they were making at the elementary level all those years ago. I just couldn't be part of the destruction any longer.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on August 17, 2012 3:26 pm

Hi Denise,

I am also going into special education. I am interested in what you found so intolerable about Smart Goals, Do Now, and the Exit Ticket. I can understand not liking Corrective Reading and Corrective Math. I personally think there is a place for these programs for individual students who really need them, but they should not be the bread and butter of math and reading instruction for all students. Everyday Math is a good curriculum; it's very comprehensive and is research-based. I am not as knowledgeable of the Trophies curriculum, which is the language arts curriculum for most District elementary schools. I would be interested in your perspective on what has changed and how teaching to the test has changed the teaching profession. I would imagine that there are other Notebook readers who would be interested in your perspective as well.


Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on August 22, 2012 8:21 am

Hi Denise: I am just reading your comment now. I just want you to know that I completely understand how you feel. So many really good teachers like you have left our system because of disenchantment with what is being imposed upon teachers and what our district has become.

When you look back, you will get to reflect upon all of the Great kids and Great colleagues you have come to know over the years. All of those successes you have had will remind you of the wonderful things you have accomplished over the years and the true value of what you have done with your life for children.

Stay involved with helping children in any way you feel comfortable and enjoy your retirement.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 3:36 pm

Principals need to be responsible for what happened in their schools. (This includes Nixon.) I told my principal what was happening and my principal chose to ignore me. Some teachers were giving far too much assistance during testing. That assistance stopped this year and the scores dropped. Granted, it was a different group but the assistance provided by SOME teachers mattered. No one other than students had to do the erasures; if a teacher gave "assistance," students would erase based on the "explanation" given by the teacher and the nod or suggestion to "try again." Some teachers, even when confronted, didn't want to hear it. The same with administrators. They cared about one thing - scores.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on August 19, 2012 5:02 pm

Remember when Ackerman was giving public awards to cheating Principals?? Everybody I knew, knew she knew the truth about the scores, but invited the press in anyway. Beautiful memories.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 17, 2012 11:46 pm

So, anyone heard from Arlene? She is ultimately responsible.

Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on August 20, 2012 8:30 pm

And laughing all the way to the bank with her "performance bonuses."

Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on August 20, 2012 8:06 pm

Correction: "consulting" for Joel Boyd, the new superintendent of Santa Fe school system. He hired her and a bunch of other buddies before he even set foot in the state of New Mexico.

Good riddance to bad rubbish, but poor Santa Fe.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 18, 2012 7:17 am

What are the repercussions? Will Nixon, once again, protect her friends? Will anyone who is "not a friend of Penny" be thrown under the bus? Ultimately, the principal is responsible for what happened in his/her school. The Regional Superintendents are responsible for what happened to schools in their region. The 440 staff - Nixon, Driver, Ackerman, Steve Brady, Joel Boyd, ETC. are responsible for what happened during their tenure with the District. Who will take responsibility?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2012 10:33 pm

Before Camden selects Universal Companies to run their schools, they better do a check-up on how Universal treats their employees. This year alone, they let go 4 out of 5 of their principals. No reason but it 's not a good fit. Oh yeah, they had the principals fire school employees and on June 18th, then they gave them the boot. Word has it they are gunning for the 5th principal trying to get her to quit or find "some reason" to fire her. Their facilitiy department has gone through at least 15 employees because the vice-president of facility and real estate can't get along with her employees. None of the school employees got a raise and won't see one for another year. Can someone say a great company to work in philadelphia? Not, Camden, watch out.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2012 10:41 am

Didn't Central just hire the Furness principal based on his track record there? Oops.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2012 10:12 am

Yes... Previously at Williard (also on the list). What will happen to all the administrators whose scores are scrutinized? This includes Nixon.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2012 10:04 am

When Ben Herold was Radio Times he made general mention that some administrators may have have benefited from high scores, yet neglected to mention the significant issue of Nixon, both as principal and region director. The Notebook seems disinterested in this particular issue.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2012 12:06 pm

The Northwest Region under Nixon has a high number of schools. Nixon not only had a school with questionable results but ran a region with many schools with questionable results. Why is Nixon "off hands" from the SRC to the Inquirer to the Notebook?

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What you say is factual and newsworthy, especially because individual schools have been put on blast.

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