by Christopher Paslay
The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s investigation into possible cheating on state tests has been less than transparent. Its handling of the situation indicates a bias against Philadelphia public schools.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has a problem on its hands—cheating. Not just minor cheating, but cheating on a grand scale that brings into question the validity of state exams and the integrity of many highly regarded suburban districts.
In July of 2009, a “Data Forensics Technical Report” flagged 39 districts and 10 charters across Pennsylvania (a total of 89 schools, 28 from Philadelphia) for having highly suspicious results on the 2009 PSSA exams. According to the report, there was a 1 in 10,000 chance of these testing irregularities happening by accident.
This was troubling news for the state. School districts like Pennsbury, Abington Heights, and Wallingford-Swarthmore were on the report, and this was not good. The state handled this problem by burying the report and hoping it would go away; the PDE sat on it for two full years. Then, in July of 2011, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook uncovered the report and blew the state’s cover.
The news went viral. Suddenly, the state was forced to address the problem of widespread cheating and the integrity of suburban schools, so State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis ordered that investigations be conducted at all 89 schools flagged for possible cheating on the 2009 forensic data report. He also ordered a similar forensic audit of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA tests, with special attention being paid to Philadelphia.
On August 15, 2011, the Philadelphia School District announced the results of its internal investigation and concluded that only 13 of the 28 schools listed on the 2009 forensic report warranted further inquiry. The state ignored these findings.
In September of 2011, the audits of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA exams were completed and delivered to the state. PDE spokesperson Tim Eller confirmed this in an interview with the Notebook. Interestingly, the state refused to release this information, even after the Notebook filed requests under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law for the information; the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records denied the requests, arguing the audits were exempt from public disclosure because they were not part of a criminal investigation.
In January of 2012, after additional requests for the results of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA audits, PDE spokesman Tim Eller changed course and wrote in an email to the Notebook that the “PDE does not have the [2010 and 2011] forensic audits.” It was right around this time—January 12th, to be exact—that the state cleared 22 districts and six charters of cheating, announcing that no further inquiry was needed; Pennsbury, Abington Heights, and Wallingford-Swarthmore were all cleared. The Philadelphia School District was not cleared, and no information regarding the decision was provided by the state.
In February, as the list of suburban schools to be investigated dwindled to almost nothing, the PDE widened its inquiry into cheating on the PSSA exams to include 50 Philadelphia School District schools. This decision was based on the 2010 and 2011 forensic audits of the PSSA tests, which the state now apparently had in its possession, but which they still had not released to the public. No data from these reports was given to the Philadelphia School District, either.
In late February, because of cheating allegations, the state announced its decision to prohibit school teachers from Philadelphia, Hazelton, and three charter schools from administering the upcoming PSSA exams to their own students.
Nothing exposes the state’s double standard more than its decision to place PSAA proctoring restrictions primarily on Philadelphia. If the PDE truly wanted to crack down on possible cheating, they could have made it a state-wide mandate that all districts in the state be prohibited from allowing teachers to administer state exams to their own students. Or, they could have placed this restriction on any district previously flagged for possible testing irregularities; at the very least, the state could have applied this mandate to the 15 school districts across the state—in addition to Philadelphia and Hazelton—that are still under investigation for cheating on the 2009 PSSA exams.
But the state did not do this. Why? First, the state would face too big an opposition from the above communities if they forced these districts to restructure their testing schedules and logistics two weeks before the 2012 PSSAs. Second, and more importantly, it behooves the state to turn up the spotlight on Philadelphia public schools—and downplay the involvement of districts in the rest of the state—in regards to the PSSA cheating debacle.
In other words, it’s good for the state to send the message that cheating isn’t widespread after all, that it’s primarily Philadelphia public schools and their teachers that can’t be trusted. This is truly an injustice, being that 200 Philly public schools—80 percent of the district—have never been implicated in anything.
The lack of transparency displayed by the state is, quite frankly, outrageous. How many schools have been flagged for suspicious testing results on the 2010 and 2011 PSSAs? What suburban blue-blood districts are on the list? Why haven’t these forensic audits been made public? Why haven’t the internal district investigations of the 89 schools flagged for cheating on the 2009 PSSA been made public? Why have some schools been cleared and why do others require further inquiry?
A closer look at the actual PSSA “Data Forensics Technical Report” compiled by the Data Recognition Corporation in July of 2009 shows some interesting results. For example, on the 11th grade PSSA, under the forensic category called AYP1 (which determines if the changes in test scores have improbably changed across years), Penn Wood High School registered 6 flags, but was cleared by the state. Frankford and Northeast high schools had 5 flags, but were not cleared as of January. Cheltenham, Connellsville, Pleasant Valley, Strath Haven, and Strawberry Mansion high schools all had 4 flags—and all were cleared by the state, save for Strawberry Mansion.
One of the most confusing “clearances” was that of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School—which had multiple flags across multiple grade levels (3 flags 5th grade, 3 flags 6th grade, 3 flags 7th grade, 3 flags 8th grade, 3 flags 11th grade). Yet the state concluded there was no further inquiry needed into possible cheating. This is quite surprising, considering instruction takes place at PA Cyber Charter at home and in cyberspace.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education must be held accountable for their inconsistent handling of cheating on state tests. Forensic audits of all PSSA exams must be made public, and clearances based on internal investigations must be adequately explained and justified.