Philadelphia District’s Response to Cheating Questioned

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 29, 2012 3 min read

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki @jzubrzycki

During the first year of stricter test-security measures in the 146,000-student Philadelphia school district, the district’s handling of new allegations of cheating in one city school was “baffling,” according to an investigation by WHYY/NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

Daniel Piotrowski, who was head of the district’s test security program, reported a slew of violations at Gen. Louis Wagner Middle School last March. NewsWorks reports that test monitors witnessed teachers coaching students, students using calculators on prohibited sections of tests, and other infractions during state standardized testing.

The district has had a stricter system of test monitoring in place since a number of schools were found to have suspiciously high numbers of erasures on standardized tests, a sign that adults may be manipulating the tests. Many of the schools involved—including Wagner—had precipitous drops in their test scores after the changes.

Here’s how NewsWorks and the Notebook describe the district’s responses to the report on cheating at Gen. Louis Wagner Middle School:

  • “Piotrowski and at least one other monitor were removed from Wagner after reporting possible violations.
  • District officials never formally interviewed either the monitors or Wagner staff.
  • District officials dismissed some of the monitors’ most serious complaints based on a ‘preliminary survey’ of what happened at the school.
  • District officials overturned Piotrowski’s judgment that a full investigation at Wagner was warranted.
  • The district waited seven months to file a formal memo to the state department of education about what happened at Wagner.
  • District officials omitted pertinent information from that memo.”

Of the 13 infractions reported by Piotrowski, NewsWorks and the Notebook report, 11 were substantiated, but the district decided not to investigate further. The school district said it had followed procedures, and that the concerns were addressed immediately by the school’s staff. Piotrowski was removed from monitoring Wagner soon after he lodged the complaint and was dismissed from his role this August.

Violations were reported at 27 Philadelphia schools last year, though Newsworks and the Notebook report that most of the violations were less egregious than those reported at Wagner.

The district’s current chief academic officer, Penny Nixon, was principal at Wagner during 2009, one of the years for which suspicious test scores were recorded. Nixon is currently on sabbatical. The promotion and the lack of investigation of principals at schools being investigated for testing has caused an outcry in the district.

The news of cheating at Wagner has drawn mixed responses (check out the comments at the bottom of the story), with some saying the district is being unfairly targeted and others claiming Wagner may well be receiving unfair attention due to its connection to Nixon.

Here’s a graphic showing which schools are being investigated by which agencies. The schools were divided into three tiers, with the most serious cases being investigated by the state’s investigator general. But, as the Notebook reports, many of the schools have not yet been investigated.

At the same time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that teachers’ evaluations in Pennsylvania will soon be tied to schools’ test scores. The rise of high-stakes testing and its connection to financial incentives for teachers and principals is often cited as an explanation for cheating scandals like the one in Philadelphia.

Cheating allegations have surfaced as an issue in a number of districts in recent years, including Atlanta and the District of Columbia In El Paso, a former superintendent was recently imprisoned for manipulating test scores. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution released the results of an analysis last March that said that 200 of the 14,700 districts it investigated nationwide had suspicious test scores.

Want to keep up with school district and leadership news? Follow @district_doss on Twitter.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

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