State Has Double Standard When It Comes to Cheating on PSSA

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.

Crackdown on Cheating in Schools Must Address Misuse of Cellphones

by Christopher Paslay

 Cheating in public schools goes beyond state exams.  Students regularly use cellphones in class to steal answers.    

Cheating is a growing problem facing public education.  PA Education Secretary Ron Tomalis recently ordered the state to investigate 49 school districts across Pennsylvania for alleged cheating on PSSA tests taken since 2009.  A recent report by the Georgia governor’s office showed that for years, Atlanta public school teachers altered student answer sheets on state tests.      

What has gotten systematically ignored by school leaders and politicians, ironically, is the daily cheating that goes on in American classrooms at the hands of cellphones.     

In 2009, Common Sense Media commissioned the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct extensive interviews with teenage students about the use of digital media for cheating in school.  The report concluded that 83 percent of students had cellphones and that in an average week, teens sent 440 text messages—110 of which were sent during class.  Sixty-five percent of teens used their cellphones in the building despite school policy.  Thirty-five percent admitted to cheating on a test at least once with their cellphone, while 65 percent said they knew of somebody who had cheated with a cellphone. 

To cut down on cheating, and to eliminate unwanted distractions, some educators have banned cellphones from their classrooms altogether.  If a cellphone is seen or heard in class, it is immediately confiscated and not returned until the end of the period.          

Interestingly, teachers who ban the use of cellphones are often labeled as old fashioned.  There is a growing pressure from society to embrace technology in all its glory, and this includes using cellphones as a learning tool in the classroom.  Education is nearing a point when all schools will be paperless, when the electronic word will replace the printed word, when laptops will serve the function of books.          

When you cut through all the rhetoric about technology, however, cellphones are an addiction.  A cellphone might be good for accessing the internet to do research, or it might have other multimedia uses and applications, but there’s going to be a time when the cellphone will need to be turned off and put away.  And too many teens do not have the self discipline to do so.     

Cell phone companies undoubtedly understand this addiction, but they’re not going to stop advertising to teens or let disruptions in learning get in the way of making billions of dollars in profit.  To ward off complaints by teachers and meet objections from educators before they can be adequately raised, cellphone companies have been donating a piece of their extremely large profits to education.

Verizon, for example, has started, a website that offers free lesson plans and professional development for teachers, after school activities for children, education news, and the like. To lay it on even thicker, they also launched, a website that boasts of a goal to “improve literacy and strengthen educational achievement for children and adults by preparing them for success in the 21st Century.”  Verizon even offers educational awards and grants to certain schools.

Not everyone associated with technology is so intent on keeping up a glowing image, however.  “Baby Shaker,” the 2009 Apple multimedia application that allowed users to shake their iPhone and in the process silence a crying baby on the screen is one example.  Although Apple apologized and removed the program from their website because of complaints from child welfare groups, it’s inconceivable as to why Apple would have placed a game like this on the market in the first place.

For those who thought Baby Shaker was just a harmless gag, they should understand what researchers in early childhood education have been saying for decades: the development of a child’s vocabulary and later academic achievement has a direct correlation to their interaction with their parents in infancy.  A child who grows up in a home where his parents shake him or shout discouragements is more likely to have a lower IQ later in life.    

Technology has a place in education, although as a culture we must be careful not to abuse it.  Just as school leaders have been careful to police state tests, so too must they fight against the misuse of cellphones in classrooms.

Impossible standards fuel spread of cheating

“‘I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam,’ Woody Allen once said. ‘I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.’

Cheating isn’t usually a laughing matter, though, as the Philadelphia School District is learning. A recently revealed 2009 report by the state Department of Education flagged 22 district-run schools and seven charters for suspicious results on standardized tests. Several city teachers have also reported breaches in test security at their schools, although an internal investigation by the Philadelphia School District concluded that claims of cheating were unfounded. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Impossible standards fuel spread of cheating.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay