Info is scarce on cheating probes at 4 area charters
State investigations have been closed at Walter Palmer and a Chester school even though irregularities were unexplained.
by Bill Hangley, Jr. and Dale Mezzacappa
Update: Pennsylvania Department of Education officials now say that “the department did not close its investigation related to Walter Palmer.” See below for details.
Walter Palmer knows it sounds odd to ask a school suspected of cheating to investigate itself. And he knows it might raise eyebrows when the state closes that investigation even though the school can’t come up with any answers.
That’s exactly what happened at the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, a K-12 school where an internal investigation found no explanation for what state officials called “extensive evidence of testing irregularities.” But its namesake, founder, and board chair insists that his school would not and did not cheat.
“I can say to you, unequivocally, that would be a no-no,” Palmer said. “You’d have to know my team, and you have to know me, to know how strongly I feel about that.”
Palmer’s school is one of four Philadelphia-area charters that remained under investigation this year after first being flagged by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) in 2009 for statistically improbable test results. State officials now confirm that investigations at two of those four charters – Palmer’s school and Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) in nearby Chester – were closed even though internal reviews produced no answers.
Investigations at two other schools, Imhotep Institute Charter and the Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter (PET), remain underway, according to PDE spokesperson Tim Eller, but he would not say whether those probes are purely internal or involve outside investigators. Administrators at Imhotep and PET did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Additional information about any of the investigations is scarce. State officials provided copies of the letters closing the investigations at Palmer and CCCS; the letters say PDE may still adjust the schools’ adequate yearly progress ratings under the No Child Left Behind law. But officials did not respond to detailed follow-up questions.
Andy Porter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said it made sense to give schools the first crack at addressing their own issues.
But he said an inconclusive internal probe at a school with strong statistical indications of cheating should be followed by an external investigation. “A strong message has to be sent that cheating is unacceptable and it will not be tolerated. It will be sought out, and it will be stamped out,” Porter said.
He didn’t see that message in the PDE letters closing the investigations at Palmer and CCCS.
“Reading those letters left me breathless,” Porter said. “I didn’t hear any shoe pounding on the table.”
‘The state never came’
Palmer, a charter pioneer and longtime advocate for community-controlled schools, said it was a “shock” to learn that his 1,300-student school had been flagged by PDE for possible cheating, based on a statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on the 2010 and 2011 PSSAs.
Palmer said that once notified of the state’s concerns, his administrators conducted an extensive internal review. They “talked to every individual teacher,” he said, and were “constantly in touch with the state.”
But no independent investigators ever visited the school, he said – neither PDE officials, nor investigators from the Office of the Inspector General, nor attorneys working for the state. “The state never came to our school. … And they never monitored the tests that came after that,” Palmer said.
Palmer’s internal review yielded only theories about what might have happened, he said.
New testing security measures put in place for 2012 were followed by a significant drop in scores. For 11th graders, proficiency rates dropped by 38 points in reading and 46 points in math.
Palmer said that may be attributable to the arrival of new students: “We expanded [and] took in a bunch of [new] kids, all in the testing grades.”
Palmer said that once his staff had completed their investigation, the school pressed state officials for a resolution for months. In October 2012, a letter from Deputy Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq arrived, which read, “We understand that the Charter School has concluded its investigation ... and notwithstanding the extensive evidence of testing irregularities, the Charter School’s investigation did not yield any clear explanation for the cause of the high number of wrong-to-right erasures.”
The letter directed the school to “vigilantly” secure future tests, following a “security plan” approved by PDE. The department prohibited teachers from proctoring tests for their own students or proctoring any students alone.
Palmer also provided a copy of an email from attorney Mark Seiberling of Conrad O’Brien, who wrote that PDE officials told him that unless more evidence of cheating emerges, “neither PDE nor the Office of the Inspector General intends to interview any teachers or administrators at the school.”
Palmer is relieved that the investigation is over, and untroubled by its impact on his school’s reputation. “We have a 2,000-student waiting list,” he said. “People believe in us. They trust us.”