A distorted reality
An ex-principal says inflated test scores skewed decision-making and hurt students. The problem isn’t fixed.
by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner
As a result, says Cruz, students at Comm Tech got a Band-Aid when they needed surgery.
“I don’t think the kids got the supports they needed,” she said flatly.
Shortly after beginning her second year at Comm Tech, Cruz left the District altogether.
Supovitz, the head of CPRE, has studied educational testing for 15 years.
A strong believer in standardized tests, he says that exams like the PSSA provide a reasonably accurate look over time at whether kids across a school or district are learning what they’re supposed to learn.
Shown the wild fluctuations in Comm Tech’s test score data between 2009 and 2011, Supovitz offered a one-word reaction:
The sharp spike in the 2010 Comm Tech scores should have provoked a closer look from the central office, he said.
“That’s the usefulness of these kinds of data,” said Supovitz. “An administrator overseeing 250 schools can look and ask questions.”
That’s not generally how the scores have been used in Philadelphia, however.
Cruz says that if anyone inside District headquarters took a critical look at Comm Tech’s PSSA results, she wasn’t aware of it.
“I was not a part of any conversations like that,” she said.
Instead, District officials held up schools with improbable results as exemplars.
Huge gains lauded
Cruz recalls vividly a citywide principals’ meeting in 2010 at which former Roosevelt Middle School principal Stefanie Ressler was invited to present on her school’s astronomical test score gains.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘Well, how in the heck did she do that?’” recalled Cruz, who had just been removed as principal of West Philadelphia High. “I have the same resources, and I’m pulling my hair out, and I can’t make those kinds of leaps.”
Several members of Roosevelt’s staff later accused Ressler, now principal of Wilson Middle School, of cheating. The state-commissioned analysis found overwhelming signs of suspicious erasures in every tested grade and subject at Roosevelt between 2009 and 2011. An investigation is ongoing.
Accounts from the unfolding cheating scandal have been hard to swallow, says Cruz.
Despite making widely praised improvements in the climate when she was at West, she was told during the 2009-10 school year that test scores weren’t rising fast enough. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman designated the school for a complete overhaul as part of her Renaissance turnaround initiative. Cruz was ousted.
“Slow, incremental growth got dismissed,” said Cruz, while questionable results were allowed to “distort what’s actually possible.”
Since 2010, 26 schools, including West, have been either converted to “Promise Academies” or handed over to charter operators, largely on the basis of poor test scores. Last year, the District closed eight schools, based in part on the same scores.
Although it is impossible to undo any of those decisions, it is not too late to “build a system that produces stable data we can have confidence in,” said Supovitz.
No action yet from city or state
To date, though, both the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and the School District have declined to address the distorting effects of artificially inflated PSSA scores.
Both continue to use the three years of questionable results to hold schools accountable and guide significant policy decisions.
In September of this year, Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis contended that 2012 is the first year in which the public can be confident that “PSSA scores are a true reflection of student achievement and academic progress.”
Regardless, PDE does not appear to have adjusted the past AYP status of any district or school. Roosevelt Middle, for example, is still deemed to have met its performance targets in both 2009 and 2010 – which gives it a more favorable AYP status now – despite the likelihood that its results from those years were tainted by cheating.
Through a spokesman, Tomalis did not respond to interview requests.
In an email, PDE spokesman Timothy Eller suggested that the state is waiting for its cheating investigation to conclude before making any decisions about adjusting AYP determinations.
“The department is considering the various options, and decisions will be announced when they are made,” he said.
The District has taken a similar stance.
No moves have yet been made to either remove the suspect data from use or to adjust it. Officials in Philadelphia still plan to use AYP status to help determine which schools to close this year. They also will apparently continue feeding questionable PSSA results into their School Performance Index, used to rank schools.
“The District will wait for the [investigation] findings before providing further comment on this issue,” wrote Gallard.
Saliyah Cruz has been affected by it all as much as anyone.
From her office in Delaware, she still wonders where Philadelphia schools would be now if officials had set a “realistic target” for growth instead of touting implausible test score gains as the norm.
“When you set up a system like that,” Cruz concludes, “it’s only a matter of time before you get the issues that we have now.”