Cheating Case Implicates Phila. Educators

By Dale Mezzacappa & Philadelphia Public School Notebook — January 28, 2014 5 min read
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A lengthy investigation into cheating on state tests in Philadelphia came to a head this month, with more than 130 current and former educators in that city now implicated for their roles in the misconduct, according to information given to the School Reform Commission.

That district and state education leaders will move ahead with disciplinary actions against such a large number of educators puts Philadelphia in the company of Atlanta, where widespread cheating on state exams led last year to the criminal indictments of 35 teachers, principals, and administrators, including a former superintendent of the year.

In the Philadelphia case, sources confirmed to The Notebook that the state attorney general has begun a criminal investigation. Several Philadelphia educators have been subpoenaed, one source said.

In the meantime, the Pennsylvania education department has filed or is pursuing actions against 69 current and former employees based on its investigation of 14 so-called Tier 1 schools—11 district schools and three charters—district officials told the commission.

The district found grounds for disciplinary action against an additional 69 educators in 19 so-called Tier 2 schools that it investigated with the help of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Officials gave more details on the results of its own investigation.

Jessica Diaz of the district’s Office of General Counsel said that the law firm found evidence of cheating in 13 of the 19 district schools that it investigated. Three schools were cleared, and the results in three others were inconclusive. She did not identify the schools.

Of the 69 educators implicated in the district’s own investigation, 40 are still employed by the district. Twenty-nine others have since resigned, retired, or been laid off, Ms. Diaz said. The district is referring those cases to the state for possible decertification or other action.

Of the active employees, there are seven administrators, 31 teachers, one counselor, and a security guard.

Long Review

In Philadelphia, the investigation of cheating on the state standardized test, the PSSA, was well underway when William R. Hite Jr. took over as superintendent in September 2012.

“Given the serious nature of the allegations and their impact on students, I provided staff with my full support and was committed to ridding our system of adults who participated in this type of behavior,” Mr. Hite said in a statement. “Although investigations are now completed, the school district will continue to devote resources to the disciplinary process against those suspected of violating basic ethical standards.”

He said he was “deeply disappointed” by the behavior of the educators, saying that they did not act in the interest of students. But he added he was “encouraged by the steps we are beginning to take tonight and in the future” to crack down on such misconduct.

So far, the state education department appears to have completed disciplinary sanctions against just a handful of educators in Philadelphia, based on tracking of such actions on a state website set up for that purpose. Ms. Diaz said that the district will not discipline educators implicated by the state’s investigation into the Tier 1 schools until the state takes action.

The commission also voted to approve a personnel resolution that included the intent to terminate three principals implicated in the cheating scandal. They were put on unpaid leave, effective Jan. 17, and will be officially terminated 21 days later, under terms of their contracts. Michelle Burns, now principal of Kensington Urban Education Academy High School, was principal of Tilden Middle School when the alleged cheating took place. Deirdre Bennett, now principal of Cassidy Elementary, was on the staff at Huey Elementary, and Marla Travis-Curtis has been the principal of Lamberton Elementary School.

At Huey, proficiency rates on the PSSA dropped 43 points in math and 34 points in reading in 2012 after new security measures were put in place by the state and district. At Lamberton, scores dropped 31 points in both math and reading. At Tilden, scores dropped 28 points in both math and reading in 2011.

The state education department initiated a cheating investigation in 2011 after the Philadelphia Public School Notebook drew attention to a forensic analysis of PSSA test results in 2009 that showed a high likelihood of cheating in more than 200 schools statewide. The analysis was based primarily on a statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets. The state department subsequently did analyses of test booklets for 2010 and 2011, and the irregularities were probed for those three years.

While investigating several districts and charter schools around the commonwealth, the department has disclosed few results.

The state subsequently tightened security overall and imposed strict test protocols at a targeted group of schools across the state, including all Philadelphia schools, whether implicated or not. PSSA scores fell across the district in 2012, in some cases sharply. Average PSSA scores across the state also declined.

Naomi Wyatt, the district’s chief personnel officer, said that educators in the 130,000-student district faced termination if there was clear evidence that they changed answers, provided answers, or told someone to violate testing protocols. She said actions were nearing completion on the first 20 of the educators, and disciplinary proceedings underway or beginning on the rest.

The numbers could go higher. Ms. Diaz said the district is now collecting data on the 22 Tier 3 schools that were also flagged for significant evidence of irregularities but not previously investigated.

Morgan Lewis interviewed 550 people, including some students, and spent 5,000 hours working on the cases of the 19 Tier 2 schools, Ms. Diaz said. The firm also reviewed test booklets and visited the testing company headquarters in Minnesota.

The state investigation was conducted by the education department along with the state inspector general and the governor’s Office of General Counsel. It hired the law firm of Pepper Hamilton to help probe several districts and charters and paid some $750,000 for its work in Philadelphia alone, according to documents obtained by the Notebook through the state Right-to-Know law. In late 2012, the state department reported filing more than 140 complaints against educators.

Ms. Wyatt said that besides termination, educators can also be suspended if they failed to report inappropriate conduct. In some cases, no action may be recommended.

In Atlanta, the jury indictment of Superintendent Beverly Hall, on conspiracy and racketeering charges, alleges that she engaged in a broad conspiracy to cheat on Georgia’s state exams in math and reading, hid the cheating, and then retaliated against whistleblowers for exposing the wrongdoing.

Ms. Hall has pleaded not guilty and is expected to go to trial later this year. She could face the testimony of former employees who were also indicted, but in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser charges, have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Cheating Case Implicates Phila. Educators


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