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State slow to provide information on PSSA probe

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Benjamin Herold

for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Pennsylvania’s inquiry into suspicious state test score results appears to have slowed to a crawl.

So far, the School District of Philadelphia has received no response from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) to a state-ordered internal investigation of 28 schools with suspicious results on the 2009 Pennsylvania System of State Assessment (PSSA) exams. The report was delivered to PDE in August.

The District has also not received any information related to statewide forensic audits of 2010 and 2011 PSSA results, which were delivered by testmaker Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) to PDE over a month ago.

In addition, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) has denied multiple Notebook requests for data and reports relating to potential cheating on state tests.

In July of this year, the Notebook published the results of a “forensic audit” of statewide 2009 PSSA results, which prompted PDE to require districts and charters to further investigate 89 schools across the state, including 28 in the District. State Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis then ordered similar statistical analyses of 2010 and 2011 PSSA results.

PDE released the 2009 audit, along with all its appendices and raw data, at the request of the Notebook. It did not cite any reasons at the time to withhold that report.

PDE spokesperson Tim Eller told the Notebook in mid-September that the 2010 and 2011 analyses had been completed, but would not be made public until those districts and charters that had schools with suspicious results had been notified.

More than a month later, Eller could not say whether that process has yet been completed.

“From the department’s perspective, the investigation is ongoing,” said Eller.

Eller said that PDE was withholding the information because officials did not want school districts to “find out through the media that they were listed in a report.”

He also said there was no hard deadline for the department to notify districts or release the reports.

District officials confirmed for the Notebook that they have not received any information related to the 2010 or 2011 audits.

PDE has also refused to make public internal district and charter reports into suspicious 2009 PSSA results, which were due to PDE in August.

School District of Philadelphia officials said in mid-August that they had submitted their report. During a press event at the time, they said District staff had not conducted interviews at any of the 28 schools they had been asked to investigate. Instead, they re-analyzed the statistical information provided by PDE.

In a presentation delivered to reporters, the officials detailed some concerns with DRC’s methodology and argued that only 13 of the 28 schools warranted further inquiry. They also said they wanted the results of the 2010 and 2011 audits, as well as direct assistance from PDE, before conducting any further investigations.

District officials said PDE has not responded to the findings in their report on the 2009 irregularities.

Officials at two of the area charters asked to further investigate their 2009 results said they had yet to receive any follow-up from PDE.

In recent weeks, the Notebook has filed requests under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law for the following records:

  • The results of statewide forensic audits of 2010 and 2011 PSSA scores, conducted on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Education by test-maker Data Recognition Corporation (DRC).
  • Reports on internal investigations into suspicious 2009 PSSA scores submitted by the School District of Philadelphia and eight area charter schools to PDE.

In denying the requests, Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) argued that the records are legally exempt from public disclosure because they are part of a non-criminal investigation, among other reasons.

The Notebook is appealing OOR’s decisions.

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