Amid signs of cover-up, Hite orders new probe into alleged cheating at Wagner

by on Dec 19 2012
Photo: Nat Hamilton for NewsWorks

by Benjamin Herold, for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

The head of the Philadelphia School District has ordered a fresh investigation into possible cheating on state standardized tests at Gen. Louis Wagner Middle School in March 2012.

The move by Superintendent William Hite was prompted by new evidence that Philadelphia school officials ignored a test security monitor’s eyewitness account of widespread test security violations at Wagner.

Hite’s decision came after NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook obtained hundreds of previously unreleased emails and memos about the administration of the 2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams at the school.

The documents revealed that on consecutive days in March, test monitors Uma Jayaraman and Daniel Piotrowski each reported that Wagner teachers were improperly helping students on the exams, along with numerous other infractions. A third monitor also documented problems at the school the same week.

Instead of following up on Jayaraman’s allegations, the District subjected her to a disciplinary hearing. District officials then omitted information about what Jayaraman witnessed at Wagner from a formal report filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

NewsWorks and the Notebook reported in October that District officials dismissed or minimized most of Piotrowski’s allegations without benefit of a formal probe. Piotrowski was fired in July.

Though Wagner was already under suspicion of cheating in 2009, 2010, and 2011, senior District officials responded aggressively to complaints made by principal Maya Johnstone and other Wagner staff, who sought to discredit the testing monitors.

Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon, who was Wagner’s principal in 2009, helped coordinate the District’s response to the cheating allegations at the school.

“It’s very disturbing,” said Robert Wilson, the Georgia attorney who helped lead the widely heralded 2011 investigation of test cheating in Atlanta public schools.

“You have to be concerned with the possibility there was a cover-up going on.”

'Their merry (cheating) ways'

In a statement, District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the new probe at Wagner is to be completed by the end of this month.

“The School District will amend its report to the [state], as necessary, upon conclusion of the investigation,” said Gallard.

The PSSAs are administered each spring to every Pennsylvania student in grades 3-8 and 11. The results are used to determine whether schools meet their federally mandated performance targets. In Philadelphia, PSSA scores are also used to guide a wide range of high-stakes policy decisions, including which schools should be closed.

Fifty-three District schools, including Wagner, are part of a statewide investigation into possible cheating on the exams in years past. An analysis commissioned by the state Department of Education found that student response sheets at Wagner in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were riddled with extremely high numbers of “wrong-to-right” erasures — a telltale sign of adult cheating.

As a result, Wagner was one of 13 schools under extra-tight security during the 2012 exams in March.

Jayaraman, an assessment development coordinator for the District, was assigned to the school as a test security monitor.

On the first day of testing, she reported in an email to Piotrowski, her supervisor, that she had witnessed widespread violations at Wagner.

“Of the 10 teachers I monitored, I can say that there was just ONE ... who did not try to help the students,” Jayaraman wrote. “All the others, including the test coordinator ... tried to freely help them.”

At the time, Jayaraman had been monitoring PSSA exams for at least five years. She had been training other central office staffers on how to monitor for at least four years.

But staff members Wagner complained almost immediately that she was interfering with their administration of the exams. In response, Jayaraman’s superiors removed her from the school and replaced her with another monitor.

Late that night, Jayaraman emailed her report to Piotrowski. She argued that the staff complaints against her were a pretense to “get me out of there.” She then detailed the numerous violations she had witnessed at Wagner:

Jayaraman also reported information suggesting possible past cheating at the school:

A [special education] student in another room with a part-time teacher kept asking her to give the answers. When the teacher said to her that she should be doing on her own, the student said last year, [redacted] gave the answers and she just bubbled it. I have the student’s name.

Jayaraman and Piotrowski each declined to comment for this story.

But the documents make clear the conclusions that Jayaraman drew about Wagner.

“Basically, this school has done whatever they felt like for too long, and the status quo is being challenged,” she wrote to Piotrowski.

“I am writing all of this to make you aware of the goings-on and that they should not think they can go about their merry (cheating) ways since I am out of the way.”

Information kept from the state

The types of violations reported at Wagner by Jayaraman are “par for the course in schools where cheating is rampant,” said Wilson, the Georgia investigator.

She wasn’t alone in reporting them.

On Tuesday, March 13, Piotrowski replaced Jayaraman as the test monitor at Wagner. That night, he reported more violations at the school.

Piotrowski’s list ranged 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.

Piotrowski also reported an even more serious violation: a “teacher coaching students on responses.”

In an email, he informed principal Maya Johnstone that the District’s Office of Accountability would launch “an investigation into the testing procedures at Wagner.”

Later that week, a third trained testing monitor, Jeffrey Robinson, reported mostly minor testing problems at Wagner. Robinson also reported that he believed Johnstone had illegally recorded a conversation with him without his consent.

“There was a set of major, major red flags regarding this particular school,” Wilson said. “A full and complete investigation should have taken place.”

Here is how Philadelphia school officials responded:

Fran Newberg, who, at the time, was the district’s deputy for accountability and educational technology, overturned Piotrowski’s determination that a full investigation of possible cheating at Wagner was warranted.

Newberg dismissed Piotrowski’s most serious allegations as “unfounded,” based on a “preliminary survey” of the situation that did not include any formal statements or interviews. A Wagner staff member disputed Piotrowski’s claim that he heard a teacher coaching students on the exams.

Newberg also praised Robinson for his “professional judgment” in declining to report the recording incident to authorities. Robinson’s report of testing issues at Wagner did not receive any official follow-up.

In a statement, District spokesman Gallard acknowledged that officials never took action on Jayaraman’s report. He also said the District “inadvertently omitted” information about the violations Jayaraman witnessed from the formal memos that it filed with the state Department of Education.

Gallard seemed to blame the lack of follow-up on the monitors.

“When observations of alleged testing integrity infractions were properly documented and forwarded, the Office of Accountability did take immediate action,” he said. “It appears, however, that a list of observations by one of the testing monitors assigned to Wagner was reported to only one former administrator within the Office of Accountability and was not forwarded.”

Wilson compared the District’s defense to those offered by school officials in Atlanta and elsewhere.

“I’ve heard every excuse under the sun as to why [a district] didn’t do this or that,” he said.

“It’s a simple question: Do you want the truth?”

A 'jail cell type environment'

During the administration of the 2012 PSSA exams, nearby Roosevelt Middle School was also under extra-tight security due to suspicion of past cheating. That same week of March 12, both Piotrowski and Jayaraman served as test monitors at the school.

“They were very professional,” said Roosevelt principal Cassandra Houston. “We welcomed their support, their guidance, and their clarity.”

The District’s top test security monitors got a different reception at Wagner.

Staff members at the school swiftly launched an aggressive campaign against Jayaraman and Piotrowski, writing to the top education officials in the city to allege “unprofessional” behavior by the monitors and a “jail cell type environment” in their school.

The complaints began within hours of Jayaraman’s arrival at Wagner, when Johnstone apparently contacted Karen Kolsky, then a District assistant superintendent.

The next day, with Kolsky’s help, Johnstone and her assistant principal filed a formal written complaint about Jayaraman with the District’s Office of Accountability.

On Wednesday, a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) staffer followed up with a similar complaint, sent to Kolsky and Nixon, the chief academic officer.

On Thursday, Wagner testing coordinator Melody Alegria and an unidentified Wagner teacher both sent emails of complaint to Nixon, members of the School Reform Commission, and other senior District officials.

And on Friday, Johnstone, unhappy with the third District monitor assigned to her school, directly emailed SRC chair Pedro Ramos “to request an outside and impartial monitor for the remainder of the testing period.”

Through her attorney, Johnstone declined to comment for this story.

Alegria and numerous other Wagner staff members either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.

But the documents obtained by NewsWorks make clear their concerns.

 

“The entire staff at Wagner feels they are being spied on,” wrote the PFT staffer in his email to Kolsky and Nixon.

Some Wagner teachers’ complaints were about districtwide policies established to rein in the cheating epidemic. Like many educators across the city, Wagner staff members were upset with the new state mandate prohibiting Philadelphia teachers from administering the exams to their own students.

“[Students] have definitely been placed in an uncomfortable and stressful situation, which absolutely will have an impact on their results,” wrote one unidentified teacher in an email to Ramos, Nixon, and others.

Others complaints were specific to the monitors working at Wagner.

Alegria wrote to Nixon and the SRC about “strangers creeping and peering” at students during testing.

The unidentified Wagner teacher wrote to senior District officials that Jayaraman’s actions as a monitor “appeared to be done intentionally to intimidate our students.”

And in her formal complaint, Johnstone wrote that a special needs student complained to her directly about Jayaraman attempting to interview the student during the exam.

A different type of investigation

Though senior District officials never formally probed the allegations of cheating at Wagner, they responded to the complaints from Wagner staff by holding an investigatory conference — commonly known as a disciplinary hearing — for Jayaraman.

Newberg and Kolsky had already agreed such action would be necessary by lunchtime on the first day of testing at Wagner. Nixon later ratified their decision.

Eventually, the District determined that Wagner staff’s complaints about Jayaraman “were not substantiated,” Gallard said.

But the documents obtained through Right to Know show that Nixon, Newberg and Kolsky repeatedly prioritized the concerns of other Wagner staff members over the reports of the District’s most highly trained testing monitors.

Nixon was involved despite her connection to Wagner. During her last year as principal at the school, Wagner’s test results were flagged for suspicious erasure patterns and statistically improbable score gains.

In an email sent on the morning of Thursday, March 15, Nixon seemed to acknowledge that she had a potential conflict of interest, writing to Kolsky and Newberg that she was “recusing” herself from the situation because she was formerly Wagner’s principal.

But that came after Nixon asked Newberg and Kolsky to investigate Jayaraman.

Nixon’s recusal also came after she sent Jack Hamilton, her special assistant, to the school.

Based on his report back to Nixon, Hamilton appears to have talked extensively with Wagner staff, but not with Jayaraman or Piotrowski.

His conclusion?

“I get a sense the school is being cheated out of their desire to perform well,” Hamilton wrote.

Nixon, who is now on sabbatical, did not respond to a request for comment.

Newberg likewise sought primarily to accommodate Johnstone’s concerns.

On multiple occasions, she communicated directly with the Wagner principal to assure her that the test monitors would be investigated.

In response to a request from Johnstone, Newberg also apparently directed one of her test monitors to break protocol and file his report from the school directly with her, instead of Piotrowski.

On Friday, March 16, Newberg went to Wagner.

According to her correspondence, the purpose of her visit was not to look into the cheating allegations reported by her own test monitors, but to “calm and reassure” Wagner staff and “follow up and get a statement from the teacher who filed a complaint about [Jayaraman].”

In the District’s prepared statement, Gallard cautioned that “not all actions taken by the District in connection with testing integrity infractions were communicated through electronic mail.”

He also noted instances where Johnstone, the principal, was responsive to the monitors’ requests that minor testing violations be addressed on the spot.

Based on Wilson's experiences in Atlanta and elsewhere, though, he said it seems likely that Philadelphia has two sets of problems on its hands.

“There are potentially major problems with cheating on tests at this school,” he said. “You may also have an administration that may not really want to get to the truth.”

Superintendent Hite did not take the helm of Philadelphia schools until months after the spring 2012 testing at Wagner was complete.

The forces of self-preservation

Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, declined to comment on possible penalties for school districts that submit faulty reports regarding cheating allegations.

Eller said that the state “welcomes efforts to ensure that evidence is gathered and facts are reported.”

In Philadelphia, Hite has directed the District’s Office of General Counsel to lead the new investigation at the school.

In the District’s statement, Gallard said Hite has also requested a “full review of the test monitor reporting process in order to strengthen procedures for the 2013 PSSA testing period.”

All of it is expected to be completed by the end of December.

“To do this in three weeks and do it right, you probably need at least five, if not eight, people working that one school full-time,” estimated Wilson.

The strength of the new investigation, Wilson said, will depend on the independence of the general counsel.

“Are they trying to please the bosses, or are they trying to get the job done?” he asked.

In Atlanta, said Wilson, investigators were given free rein. They had up to 70 people at time working on the probe. And they had subpoena power.

The Atlanta probe ultimately proved that hundreds of educators had cheated on state tests -- and that district administrators there had altered or destroyed key documents relating to the investigation.

Wilson said a thorough, independent investigation is necessary to counteract officials’ tendency toward self-preservation.

“There are all these forces at play who want to say, ‘Oh, [the cheating] didn’t really amount to much,’” he said, citing school boards, district and school administrators, teachers, and the business community.

“But if we are cheating children in their education process, we are cheating the future of this country,” Wilson said. “And if you aren’t concerned about that, then your head is simply not screwed on straight.”

This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.