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

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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 by Bill Hangley, Jr. and Dale Mezzacappa on Nov 20, 2012 02:33 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School was flagged for improbable test results.

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.”

About the Author

Bill Hangley, Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.

Comments (4)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 22, 2012 10:55 am
My opinion about PE&T, since I'm a ninth grader who was in this school, most times in the classes I go to, I rarely got homework, since I'm not like the other classmates who want to talk to each other rathar than doing classwork. The reason I didn't get homework most times is that I do my classwork, but I'd realize that the classwork was for homework if not finished, and in some classes, I'd rarely got homework. There might be other people with their view about this school, but in my opinion, I'd rarely got homework.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 22, 2012 11:33 am
The investigation of Walter Palmer Charter and Chester Charter show the PA Dept of Education is not serious about addressing cheating in charter schools. Allowing a school to examine itself is not an investigation. Both charters are suspect. Walter Palmer named a school for himself and remains the CEO. He has an enormous pot of tax payers money (1300 student???) to play with and distribute at will. Has Walter Palmer Charter been investigated for nepotism (remember Community Academy Charter and World Communications Charter)? What is the CEO salary and perks compared to teachers? This is a church affiliated school? How is the money kept separate? If the PA Dept. of Ed. goes after School District schools while letting charters "pass," the Departments ongoing bias toward charters continues. Cheating is endemic in a high stakes testing environment. Ackerman praised cheating by honoring schools with unrealistic jumps in scores (Roosevelt Middle, Wagner Middle, Comm. Tech HS, ETC.) Now that teachers in public - not charter - schools will be evaluated based on test scores, the Dept. of Ed needs to level the playing field.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 22, 2012 3:29 pm
Palmer is the Board President, a non-paid position.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 22, 2014 5:47 pm
This school deserves to close. They are doing these students an injustice. Check the graduating seniors transcripts- fake. If you have a certain someone's phone number in the administration your kid can do no wrong - they won't be punished or disciplined because calls will be made to the person after hours and deals struck. Take a look at the pay rates it's insulting if you have a college degree and make similar to office clerks or ghost employees who collect a check but have never step foot in the building.

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