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December 2012 Vol. 20. No. 3 Focus on Fallout from a Cheating Scandal

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A distorted reality

An ex-principal says inflated test scores skewed decision-making and hurt students. The problem isn’t fixed.

By by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner on Nov 20, 2012 05:40 PM
Photo: Kimberly Paynter for NewsWorks

In 2010, math scores at Communications Technology High in Southwest Philadelphia jumped an astonishing 40 points and reading scores rose 22 points. Adult cheating is suspected. While a state-led investigation goes on, the questionable test results continue to have an impact.

In July 2010, when Saliyah Cruz was named principal of Communications Technology High, state test scores said the small citywide admission school in Southwest Philadelphia was one of the best in the city.

Everything else said something different.

SAT scores were poor. Summer enrichment programs were empty. Loads of kids tested into remedial reading and math. According to Cruz, even the police complained that many students had spent much of the previous school year at the nearby Penrose Plaza strip mall instead of in class.

“Those kinds of things didn’t add up for me,” she said. “If my kids were out in the street when they belong in school, how were they scoring [75] percent proficient?”

Two years later, an answer appeared: A mountain of circumstantial evidence now suggests that Comm Tech’s results on the 2010 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams were inflated by adult cheating. The school is one of 53 District schools and four area charters involved in a state-led investigation that has prompted questions about the validity of test results between 2009 and 2011.

Cruz, now a middle school principal in Delaware, says the suspect scores at Comm Tech hurt students. She also believes they reflected a districtwide culture of rewarding improbable PSSA gains while dismissing steady improvement.

“The message quite clearly was, ‘Here’s what’s expected in the School District of Philadelphia,’” said Cruz. “All the principals, all the teachers, all the kids need to be able to make these giant leaps forward.”

Testing experts say the ripple effects of inflated scores go even wider, especially because the District continues to rely heavily on data that is likely tainted to measure success and make high-stakes policy decisions.

“I think the implications are pretty profound,” said Jonathan Supovitz, a University of Pennsylvania professor who co-directs the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE).

“If we can’t assume the stability of the data, then any sense of guidance about what we’re doing well or not well is broken down.”

District officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

“It is too early to say how the PSSA scores have been affected by the allegations of testing improprieties,” wrote spokesman Fernando Gallard in a statement, citing ongoing investigations.

Each year, students in grades 3-8 and 11 take the PSSA in reading and math. Their scores are used to determine whether schools meet federally mandated performance targets, known as adequate yearly progress (AYP). In Philadelphia, they’re also used to make big decisions, including which schools get closed or converted to charters.

In 2010, 75 percent of 11th graders at Comm Tech scored proficient or above in reading. That was a 22 percentage-point jump over the previous year.

In math, 70 percent of Comm Tech 11th graders scored proficient or above, 40 points higher than the year before.

An analysis commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education suggested the results may be illegitimate. In both 2009 and 2010, a high number of student response sheets at Comm Tech had suspicious patterns of “wrong-to-right” erasures – a telltale sign of adult cheating.

Before the 2010-11 school year started, Comm Tech’s principal, Barbara McCreery, was replaced. That year, under Saliyah Cruz, the suspicious erasures went away. The school’s scores tanked, dropping 38 points in reading and 45 points in math.

McCreery, now the principal at Bok Technical High, declined to comment for this story.

Cruz says she wasn’t sure what to think when she walked into Comm Tech.

“I thought I was taking the helm of a high-performing school,” said Cruz. “Although there were some red flags.”

She says she tried talking to Comm Tech staff to get a handle on what was going on.

“‘Guys, help me understand this. What were we doing last year that accounted for the kind of academic performance the kids had?’”

In response, says Cruz, staff pointed to “Study Island,” a computer-based test prep program used at many District schools.

“It didn’t make any sense,” she said.

Despite her skepticism, Cruz says the 2010 PSSA results still led her to believe that only a small proportion of Comm Tech’s students needed remedial help. Rather than overhaul staffing patterns and course schedules to allow for a schoolwide intervention, she expanded use of Study Island.

But early indicators signaled disaster. Reports generated by Study Island suggested that students didn’t understand the material. Interim tests used to predict PSSA performance pointed to huge score drops. Cruz’s own eyes told her that students weren’t learning.

Some of her staff refused to believe any of it, she says.

“I got a lot of pushback,” said Cruz. “‘I don’t care what all this data is saying, our PSSA scores say something different.’”

Her efforts to get some staff to change their instruction or re-teach content were rebuffed.

“I felt like I was running into a brick wall,” said Cruz.

About the Author

Contact WHYY education reporter Benjamin Herold at bherold@whyy.org.

Comments (38)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 20, 2012 4:31 pm
Fernando Gallard must have a nose that stretches miles !! Imhotep is an even bigger farce then anything Kenny Gamble can conjure up.. When will all this corruption and dishonesty at every level end ??
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 20, 2012 5:50 pm
It's the big secret that EVERYBODY is and was in on. NOBODY believed those scores who was past the age of reason. EVERYBODY just played along waiting for SOMEBODY to blow the whistle and expose/explode the whole thing to the PRESS. The folks at Roosevelt told the truth followed by the people from Cayuga. It says here that Fast Eddie Rendell knew it too as did Corbett, of course. NO test scores jump 60 points from one year to the next unless foul play is involved.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on November 20, 2012 5:15 pm

This story is a stark exposure of what's wrong with the whole NCLB regime based on standardized testing.   That good administrators like Cruz and whole schools were thrown under the bus by the District while others, where the evidence of wrong doing is  powerfu, l actually got promoted and are allowed to keep their ill gotten gains is sickening.   Arlene Ackerman, a monstrous hypocrite who chided everyone else about not putting children first,  presided over this corruption ridden system and got away with a golden parachute and her credentials intact.   And there is little indication that either the state or local leaders have any taste for dealing with this.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on November 20, 2012 7:19 pm
No, they have no taste to stop it because they're all in on the take. They're all in too far to expose themselves like that.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 20, 2012 7:05 pm
This is the honorable woman who was removed as principal of West Philadelphia High School. The District's disgrace.
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on November 20, 2012 9:25 pm
One need only look at two things...the grades in class and the grades on the SAT/ACT...they could not possibly match whatever the students got on the PSSA....well, unless the teachers doctored those as well....
Submitted by This is appalling (not verified) on November 20, 2012 9:53 pm
Let us count the ways: 1. The principal at the suspect school, McCreery, apparently wasn't demoted, punished or fired. She's simply been transferred to be principal of another school (Bok). What kind of message does THAT send? 2. The district is apparently sitting on its hands waiting for the state to tell them how seriously to take their own data. THIS is how you run a $3 billion operation? Waiting for your political overseers to tell you what to do? Kudos to the Notebook and WHYY for pursuing this story. It is a crying shame that adult public officials can hold their heads up given the rampant ethical and professional violations they publicly acknowledge have occurred (not to mention the ones we don't know about!). If there were any justice the folks responsible would be out of work and all those school nurses, librarians, and guidance counselors laid off would be re-hired.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 20, 2012 10:36 pm
As one of the 43 remaining certified librarians in the SDP, I thank you for your supportive comment.
Submitted by Anonym. (not verified) on November 20, 2012 10:45 pm
Comm. Tech. gamed the system under McCreery. The two School Based Teacher Leaders (SBIS) at Comm. Tech. were clueless - they certainly didn't create this "miracle." The word on the street was Comm. Tech. not only assisted students during testing but selected students to be tested. Students who the administration did not want to test were switched to a another grade (dropped credits). So, students' rosters were played with to eliminate some students who would pull down scores. Check how many students were tested versus total enrollment. Check how many had to take the test the following year. There also was open discussion at the SBIS meetings (under Darrien Driver) on test preparation that was clearly in appropriate. This included looking at tests before administration and going over problems / readings, assisting students during testing ,etc. The goal was scores - not learning or even "achievement."
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 20, 2012 11:16 pm
It's sad that Ms. Cruz had to go. It was a set up by queen Ackerman to push her out. The school clearly cheated before Cruz came. I admired Ms. Cruz. SBISs were horrible. They can't teach, can't support teachers, yet can collect 6 fig. salary. Shame! As always some teachers are great, some are horrible. Worse, students are not treated the same at Com. Tech. Double standards exist. The students can get away because they know / related to some teachers/ security officers,... So many problems.
Submitted by Anonym. (not verified) on November 21, 2012 4:01 am
While Ackerman certainly was behind getting rid of Ms. Cruz, Jannie Blackwell and her supporters also wanted to "take West back." Ms. Cruz and her staff (a principal can't do it alone) improved climate at West. Cruz is obviously honest - hard core Philly politicos like Blackwell don't operate with honesty. Remember, Cruz was "removed" over July 4th weekend - past the end of the school year. There's more to this story.
Submitted by Veteran of the WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on November 25, 2012 7:48 pm
And who will finally end Blackwell's destructive reign? Latest scandal - traffic court. Or is this just Philadelphia?
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on November 25, 2012 10:49 pm
Unfortunately, Philadelphia City Council is entrenched. Blackwell will probably sit on her throne until she dies. Traffic Court is another notch in her belt of corruption. Philadelphia is much like Boss Tweed's NYC - we're suppose to be happy with an annual turkey while the few profit and the rest of us pay the bills.
Submitted by tom-104 on November 26, 2012 6:55 pm
I attended the City Council hearings on BCG today. I agree. City Council is in the charter operators pockets. If people don't start speaking up we are done.
Submitted by Veteran of the WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on November 26, 2012 11:39 pm
How do we speak up? To whom?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 22, 2012 5:31 pm
Not true. As a former SBIS we NEVER sat through meetings that included looking at tests before dissemination. And if you know of an SBIS hat made 6 figures call them out by name... we were paid as per the district /union collective bargaining schedule. trying to boost your side by telling lies does nothing for your credibility.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 22, 2012 6:31 pm
No one sat looking at tests. Some SBISs talked about looking at tests at their schools and using it to prep students. This is not unique to SBISs. I know of teachers that would get a copy of the test and "review it" to "make sure they covered everything" and then go over something very similar in class. The tests should have been secured but they were not. Administrators either encouraged it or looked the other way.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 6:16 pm
Still?
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on November 21, 2012 11:06 am
What a disgrace! And the District is still using the SPI Index to label schools, close schools and con the public into thinking that different schools are better than others based on this index! Good, well meaning, hard working principals are forced out while cronies, cheaters and tyrants are promoted and laterally transferred. I came into the District 7 years ago and a lot has changed for the worst....
Submitted by Lawlass52 (not verified) on November 21, 2012 3:42 pm
By investigating "adult cheating" on the PSSA tests, we are testing schools. Wrong focus. We should be testing the students. Here's what I mean. To test the validity of scores for 11th graders who took the PSSA in the spring of 2012, the PSSA should be administered again in September or October 2012 to students promoted to 12th grade. This would be a better test to confirm whether or not students who passed the PSSA in 11th grade really learned the material taught in 11th grade. Even better, the PSSA should be administered in every grade, and each student's scores should be compared to their scores for the year before, so that appropriate remedial supports can be implemented for the students who did not learn what they should have learned the year before. Additionally, PSSA scores should not be used to punish schools that poorly perform, but as a tool to determine what academic and social supports are necessary to assist students in learning what they need to know in order to become socially, culturally, and economically competent adults in our society.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 22, 2012 8:45 am
Lawlass52, who can afford to re-test those students, much less test every grade moving forward? The bottom line is that there is more than enough evidence of adult cheating. Punish the leadership for this wrong doing. Take action now before parents and students get wise and file a class action lawsuit.
Submitted by Lawlass52 (not verified) on November 30, 2012 2:47 pm
The Philadelphia Public Schools regularly administer district prepared tests in every grade during the course of the school year in order to determine students' progress in math and reading comprehension. There would not be any additional expense involved in re-testing using the same PSSA administered the year before. Once we begin to focus on how to assist failing students in mastering the diverse subject matter through collaborative teaching of content, individual learning projects, and academic mentoring and tutoring, instead of testing students as a way of punishing teachers and administrators, the right interventions can be put in place to help those students who have fallen behind. When we begin to use test results only to assess learning and to employ methods of teaching that really work, then we will see student progress.
Submitted by ANON 452 (not verified) on November 30, 2012 2:46 pm
ALL PSSA test materials and booklets are returned to the state at the end of the testing window. NO PSSA materials may be copied or kept by schools. We could NOT retest using last year's PSSA because we are not allowed to keep it. There are released items available on the state PDE website, but there are not enough to replicate an entire test.
Submitted by Lawlass52 (not verified) on December 3, 2012 3:55 pm
Thanks for the correct information. We need some innovative solutions to assist students in not only understanding what they have been taught in one grade year, but retention over time. I remember as far back as first grade, my teacher separated the so called "smart kids" (fast learners) from the slow learners. I was among the fast learners. We had different books to read, and were often assigned more complicated work, like writing an essay. If we finished our daily assignments ahead of time, my teacher directed us to help the slow students with their work. The fast learners were paired with one or two slow learners and were functionally speaking, "teaching assistants." Giving children a sense of responsibility to "help your neighbor", minimized the competitiveness among students, engendered a spirit of "we are all in this together" and encouraged us to retain what we were learning so that we could help each other succeed. Identification, camraderie, and positive socialization with my fellow students, is an important part of the learning process that is overlooked. Our teachers gave us homework assignments in reading and arithmetic to do every day, including Fridays. I used to do my Friday homework assignments in school so I would not have to do them over the weekend.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 6:27 pm
Principal Cruz left in Oct 2011 and new principal was left with that fall out. Low performing school AND climate issues. Bottom line is that if more emphasis is put on what kids will know and DO in all subjects along with good teaching, students will achieve. That is common sense.
Submitted by Angel Cruz & Elaine Goetz (not verified) on December 3, 2012 1:58 pm
Ben Herold is a biased reporter. My son's grades were changed by his English teacher and supported by the Principal of his school. We have documentation of this and much more, including the Principal threatening us and harassing us after we filed a formal complaint against him. We had contacted Ben Herold about this matter and he has not been 'permitted' to write about our story-only AFTER contacting the SDP representatives who are covering up this story. Mr. Herold I say to you in a public forum - if this story of changing grades is not legitimate -how come no one is addressing our concerns? How come we have not been given an opportunity for a hearing as is standard procedure under the FERPA act? How come Pedro Ramos, Michael Davis, Superintendent Hite and many others are refusing to acknowledge what has happened and continues to happen? How come no one is addressing our formal Complaint Mr. Herold if there is no basis to our truths we have told since September? How come Mr. Herold you wanted 'first crack' at this story, until you were dissuaded by the SDP reps who directly are ignoring us?
Submitted by Angel Cruz & Elaine Goetz (not verified) on December 3, 2012 2:21 pm
A 'DISTORTED REALITY' INDEED.......READ ON FOR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES OF ALTERED GRADES AS SUPPORTED BY THE SDP...... BELOW IS AN EMAIL TO A PARENT FROM SDP REPRESENTATIVE CRYSTAL NELSON SUPPORTING THE ALTERATIONS OF MY SON'S GRADES, STATING IT IS THE 'PERSONAL CHOICE OF AN EDUCATOR TO DECIDE HOW TO GRADE A STUDENT', NOT BASED ON THE STUDENTS EFFORTS: From: "Nelson, Crystal" To: Elaine Goetz Sent: Monday, November 26, 2012 1:03 PM Ms. Goetz and Mr. Cruz, It is not a crime for a teacher to make a decision regarding assessment. Its personal choice and certainly professionally appropriate. Some teachers count everything a student does towards a final grade, some consider only projects and major tests, some do not grade homework......... It is the teacher's discretion. In this case a teacher decided to allow students to drop a low grade....not an uncommon practice. As a parent you may not appreciate a method. However, unless it is discriminatory, etc it is not illegal. Your son is in a school with high achievers. There are probably many valedictorians......... .......We can not change the teacher's professional practice in this matter. ..... Ms. Nelson Crystal E. NelsonDirector, PFRC The School District of Philadelphia 440 N. Broad Street, Suite 114 Philadelphia, PA 19130 215-400-5593
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 3, 2012 3:29 pm
I'm sorry, but I don't see anything wrong with what Nelson wrote and I don't see anything about grade alteration. It appears that she is correctly stating that teachers use different formulas. It's that simple.
Submitted by Angel Cruz and Elaine Goetz (not verified) on December 3, 2012 6:20 pm
To Anonymous: While you may not 'see anything' wrong with grade alterations -that would be of an ethical concern on your part. My son made Valdectorian of his 8th grade class based on honesty, integrity and hard work. His previous teachers accommodated us as the parents when we requested his grades reflects his efforts. While you do not know the whole story - you can rest assured that changing grades is completely criminal and ethically incorrect. The SDP and the Federal government clearly state that an educator may not alter grades or 'distort evaluations' of student - Subsection of the Code of Ethics - paragraph 235.10. If my son's grades are changed - how does he learn ethical values of hard work? Why should my son be encouraged to work for his grades, if his grades are not based on his efforts? You have no idea that the changes of my son's grades stem from a cover up of ignoring my parental rights to keep my son on the proven track of success he had prior to me being cut off from all parental rights by the SDP. You have no understanding that my son is being abused in his mother's home and the SDP has ignored these concerns as well which has caused my son physical harm, not once but twice because no one is acknowledging or addressing our concerns for his well-being. You have no idea that my son becoming an F student in only 30 days, not doing his homework and his teacher altered his grades to hide these facts.....so yes this is a very legitimate problem -supported by laws and regulations which are noted on the SDP and Department of Educations website. So whoever you are -you too are either ignorant to the laws that protect my son and me....or you too are part of the cover up. I will not be dissuaded by your 'anonoymous' reply without support or documentation. But you are entitled to your uninformed opinion. My son will not 'be pushed' through the system by altering grades. I thank you for your response 'anonymous'.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 3, 2012 6:15 pm
Okay, Testy, calm down. You might want to reread my comment - I said that I did not see anything about altering (that means "changing") grades in Ms. Nelson's e-mail. I would also mention that you are not a verified user...so writing a name - which could be any name - means nothing. Without hesitation, I would contact DHS or a custody lawyer if my child was being abused. Perhaps you could focus your energy on that instead of distorting peoples' words and taking anger out on an anonymous poster. My prayers go out to your child.
Submitted by ANON 452 (not verified) on December 3, 2012 6:11 pm
OK, the SDP cannot cut you off from all parental rights, only the court system can do that. If your son is being abused in another of his parents' homes, you need to call DHS--the school cannot do anything about that. Your story is confusing and not really appropriate to a public forum. Did he get a good grade or a bad grade? Did they drop a high or low grade? As an 8th grade teacher, I can tell you that many 9th graders who have done well in their small neighborhood schools struggle and face an adjustment when they get to a magnet school. Your son is now among students who are all smart and high-achieving. I am not sure what you mean when you say his previous teachers accommodated you by basing grades on effort. Students, no matter how hard they work, may not always achieve the high level expected to get an "A". If your child's grades are falling and you fear he is being abused, he may need counseling.
Submitted by Angel Cruz and Elaine Goetz (not verified) on December 3, 2012 9:57 pm
Thank you. The school is very much obligated by law to involve DHS- especially when the mother has a court documented history of abuse and neglect with my children. SLA had offered to involve them early on in this situation -but now ignores my pleas for intervention due to underlying factors to protect their status as a Top Ten School in the nation; among other reasons as well. Also it is a law that all professionals whom work with children are obligated to contact authorities if there is any suggestion of abuse or neglect in the home. That is a law that includes teachers, administrators, counselors, health workers, social workers, mentors, anyone who is affiliated with guiding a minor child must file a report and initiate an investigation with child protective services. SLA even has a DHS liason for these exact reasons. DHS will not follow through on my word as the mother is friendly with the social workers and it will be ignored in the end. My son's grades were low and then they were changed to 'excused' dropped' and 'not for grade' so that his high grades were the only grades that would be reflective of his final grade. They deleted all his low grades and gave him high grades to cover up the fact that they ignored what I was telling them since the first day of school and that was that my son would fail if I was excluded from guiding him. Since this ended up being true - they altered his grades and confirmed the same in various email communications. Besides - I have the right to hold my son accountable for his grades - it is illegal to distort grades -that is a crime and is noted in Federal forums governing the laws of our educational system. The previous teachers respected us in that they did not drop grades, change grades or excuse grades for any reason by our direction. I do not expect As from my son right now- I expect failing grades due to his mother's home environment -that is my argument and it has happened-which I am fine with. But no one is addressing these facts that I warned everyone about before it happened -which makes this matter preventable and now brings 'gross negligence' into play. My son needs help and altering his grades covers up this fact that I have been pleading for intervention about since September. He does need counseling - but I am being prevented from seeking counseling by the mother and the SDP and SLA - no one is listening.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 3, 2012 6:35 pm
How unfortunate that the former principal of Comm Tech finds it necessary to put the school "on blast" as a way to find her way into the spotlight. The story could have been told without having the school and students' picture on the front page. My son is doing well in the Vocational program there and has learned valuable "real world" skills and lessons. The Administration and staff are working hard to repair the damage done in the past.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 6:36 am
Saliyah Cruz is now happily doing the students and parents of Kirk Middle School in Delaware a disservice.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 15, 2013 2:04 am
this is why the district will never be fixed. it is the poster child for dysfunction. and how about those teamsters running schools? vouchers anyone?
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