New cheating concerns at Philly school met with 'baffling' response

by on Oct 23 2012
Photo: Nathaniel Hamilton for NewsWorks

In March, the head of the Philadelphia School District’s test security program reported more than a dozen violations of testing protocol at Wagner Middle School. Effective in July, he was fired.

by Benjamin Herold, for WHYY/NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner


In the spring, amid vows from Philadelphia school officials to stamp out adult cheating on state tests, students at Wagner Middle School sat down to take the 2012 exams.

On March 13, the second day of testing at Wagner, the head of the School District's test security program reported more than a dozen testing violations at the school.

Among the infractions that Daniel Piotrowski said he witnessed was a teacher coaching students on how to answer test questions.

The same week, at least one other monitor also reported testing infractions at the school, which is in the city's West Oak Lane section.

At the time, Wagner already had been targeted for investigation based on signs of cheating in years past, including 2009, when the District's chief academic officer was the school's principal.

The reports of fresh violations at Wagner presented the District with an immediate test of its new commitment to take cheating seriously.

Here is how the District responded:

Effective in July, Piotrowski, then the District's executive director of accountability and assessment, was fired. Neither he nor the District would comment on the circumstances of his termination.

This account of the events at Wagner is based on documents and interviews with sources who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

A 'baffling' response

The District's response was highly questionable, said one national expert on educator misconduct.

"It's baffling to me why [the District] would not have responded more aggressively to a report of this nature," said Phillip Rogers, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC.)

In a statement, the District stood by its response to the cheating complaints at Wagner.

"The Office of Accountability, Equity and Compliance oversaw this entire process according to protocol and procedure," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.

"There is no room in our schools for any adult involved in cheating."

High stakes, a troubled history

Each spring, students across Pennsylvania in grades 3-8 and 11 take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.

Their scores are used to determine whether schools meet federally mandated academic performance targets. In Philadelphia, the test results also guide a wide range of high-stakes decisions, including which schools should be closed or converted to charters.

Last February, NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook jointly reported that a statewide investigation into possible cheating on the exams had widened to include 53 traditional public schools in Philadelphia.

Among them was Gen. Louis Wagner Middle School.

In a state-commissioned analysis of PSSA results from 2009, 2010, and 2011, Wagner was one of dozens of schools across Pennsylvania found to have highly suspicious patterns of "wrong-to-right" erasures on student response sheets – a telltale sign of adult cheating.

Penny Nixon, the District's current chief academic officer, was the school's principal in 2009.

In 2010 and 2011, Wagner was led by its current principal, Maya Johnstone.

As a result of its past problems, Wagner was one of about a dozen schools put under extra-tight security during the 2012 PSSA exams. Johnstone and other school officials were not allowed to open boxes containing the tests without a monitor present.

Although some complained that the new testing regulations were unfair to Philadelphia students and schools, the School Reform Commission backed the measures, calling them necessary to "ensure that PSSA test administration is conducted with integrity."

Daniel Piotrowski was the architect of the District's rigorous new approach. A six-year District veteran, he had overseen the development of new testing protocols and the training of roughly 100 monitors for this round of the exams.

By March 2012, Piotrowski had emerged as the public face of the district's response to cheating. That month, he was profiled by the Philadelphia Inquirer for his work.

An urgent email

On March 13, Piotrowski was at Wagner to act as a monitor. He spent the day securing testing materials and observing classrooms.

That evening, Piotrowski emailed Johnstone at 9:49 p.m. His message began:

"I apologize for the late hour of this message, but after reviewing my notes from monitoring today and consulting some experts, I feel compelled to write to resolve some of the issues at Wagner regarding PSSA administration.

"Due to the level and number of violations witnessed at Wagner, the Office of Accountability will start an investigation into the testing procedures at Wagner."

Piotrowski outlined 13 definite and four possible violations of procedures that he said he had witnessed at the school. His list included everything from teachers allowing students to use calculators on prohibited sections of the math exam to the test coordinator improperly leaving secure test materials in the school's main office.

Taken together, the list "ranges from sloppy practices to serious infractions of accepted testing protocols," said Rogers of NASDTEC.

The most serious claim in Piotrowski's email to Johnstone was that he had witnessed a "teacher coaching students on responses."

In his message, Piotrowski identified the teacher and suggested the teacher be removed from giving the test to students:

"I would like to reiterate my suggestion that [the teacher] not continue to administer the PSSA this year. At a minimum, both [Wagner assistant principal Yvette Benning] and I witnessed [the teacher] talking to the class with language that was neither the assessment nor test administration material. Although I cannot confirm absolutely that [the teacher] was providing answers, [the teacher's] actions were clear violations of PSSA policy, District safety policies, and Wagner's test administration plan."

The message from Piotrowski to Johnstone is contained within the thread of a longer email exchange. First, Johnstone forwarded Piotrowski's message to Benning, her assistant principal. Then, Benning responded to Piotrowski, copying in multiple other recipients.

In her message, Benning disputed part of Piotrowski's report, arguing that the teacher he cited may have been reading test questions aloud to special education students, a permissible accommodation under the testing guidelines:

"I stated repeatedly to you that I did not hear anything inappropriate as we were standing outside of [the teacher's] door. ... In the future, if you are going to refer to statements made, please make sure that you are restating the facts."

Benning, Johnstone, and Piotrowski all declined to comment for this story.

Monitors removed

Rogers of NASDTEC said the scope, severity, and source of the reported violations at Wagner should have provoked a swift, strong response by the District.

"Never should a report of a trained observer be dismissed if they have documented that there is cheating going on," he said. "For some [of the reported infractions,] I would think a serious third-party inquiry would be warranted."

At Wagner, Piotrowski was removed from monitoring the testing at Wagner shortly after reporting violations at the school, according to sources.

Documents and sources indicate that a second monitor who reported testing infractions at Wagner on a different day that week was also removed from the school.

"Monitors are sometimes moved based on administrative decisions and scheduling needs," said Gallard, the District's spokesman. Gallard said that Piotrowski was reassigned from Wagner to accommodate a media request to meet with him at another school.

In response to the complaints of testing violations, District officials chose not to formally interview or take statements from either Wagner staff or the monitors who reported infractions there.

Instead, Piotrowski's boss, Fran Newberg, received informal briefings from the monitors and conducted a site visit at Wagner, an approach Gallard described as consistent with District protocol.

At the school, Newberg, the District's deputy chief of accountability, led what District documents alternately describe as a "debrief" with Wagner staff or a "preliminary survey" of the situation.

Based on Newberg's efforts, the District concluded that two of Piotrowski's allegations were unfounded, including his claim to have witnessed a teacher improperly coaching students.

The District backed Benning's version of events regarding that teacher. District officials also cited the possibility that the teacher Piotrowski cited may have been reading test questions out loud to special ed students, which is permitted.

"The allegation that a test monitor witnessed a teacher using 'language that was neither the assessment nor test' was reviewed and found to be inconclusive," Gallard said.

Through Newberg's review, the District substantiated 11 other infractions reported by Piotrowski. The District concluded that those problems "had been addressed immediately by [Wagner] principal and staff."

Piotrowski's superiors rejected his judgment that a formal investigation should be launched.

Varying responses

District officials handled differently a single reported violation at an unnamed elementary school, also reported in March 2012.

According to the District's investigation report at that school, obtained through the state Right to Know law, teachers alleged the school's testing coordinator had improperly arranged for students to complete missing sections of a test they had already taken.

That school was subjected to a full investigation involving both the District's Office of General Counsel and Office of Accountability. Signed statements were required from two teachers at the school, and formal interviews were conducted with three teachers and the school's testing coordinator.

In its four-page report submitted to the state, the District explained in detail the results of its inquiry, including why officials ultimately concluded that there was no wrongdoing at the school.

Gallard said the District responded more aggressively at the elementary school because the violations were reported after PSSA administration had concluded. The timing of the complaint, said Gallard, left "no opportunity for the Office of Accountability to visit the school and conduct a preliminary survey to dismiss, substantiate, and/or address the allegations while the testing was still in progress."

All told, testing violations were reported at 27 District schools in 2012.

Only the elementary school cited above was formally investigated.

Twenty-five other schools were reported for mostly lesser infractions, such as posters left on classroom walls. At these schools, the District's Office of Accountability pointed out the observed infractions to school staff. In some cases, officials held an informal conference with the school's leadership team. In summary memos sent to those schools and copied to the state in late August, principals were encouraged to more thoroughly train staff on the "do's and don'ts" of PSSA test administration next year.

That was the treatment given to Wagner.

Information left out

District officials waited until October to file their memo from Wagner.

Gallard attributed the seven-month delay to staffing and leadership changes at the District.

The memo ultimately submitted by the District excluded the two allegations by Piotrowski that had been deemed unfounded: "Teacher coaching students on responses" and "Improper materials on walls in classrooms."

Gallard said that a separate "summary report," also sent to the state on Oct. 3, contained information about these allegations, as well as the District's response.

Gallard confirmed that neither the memo on Wagner nor the "summary report" mentioned the infractions observed by other monitors at the school. Nor did either document mention that Piotrowski and at least one other monitor were removed from Wagner after reporting long lists of infractions. Gallard said neither omission should be considered unusual, given the nature of the reports.

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller did not respond to multiple requests for comment or clarification on the state's policy regarding reporting testing violations.

Gallard said "the District stands by its report and believes it accurately describes the findings of the test monitors at Wagner Middle School."

What's happened since

On Aug. 16, the School Reform Commission voted to terminate Daniel Piotrowski.

His firing was officially effective July 14, according to the SRC resolution.

In September, the District announced that Penny Nixon was taking a yearlong sabbatical as chief academic officer, effective Nov. 1. Officials say her sabbatical was approved to enable her to concentrate on her doctoral studies. They say this move had nothing to do with the Wagner situation.

On Sept. 21, the state Department of Education released the results of the 2012 PSSA exams, attributing statewide score drops to less cheating than in years past.

The percentage of students scoring proficient or above at Wagner fell 24 points in reading and 28 points in math from 2011.

The District remains responsible for investigating possible cheating on state tests at Wagner in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Officials have said the findings from that probe should be available by the end of this calendar year.

This story was reported as part of NewsWorks' partnership in education coverage with the Public School Notebook.

UPDATE: Listen to Benjamin Herold discuss the story on WHYY's NewsWorks Tonight