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Confusion lingers over handling of cheating probes at charters

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

This article is an updated version of a story that appears in our print edition.

by Bill Hangley and Dale Mezzacappa

Walter Palmer knows it sounds odd to ask a school suspected of cheating to investigate itself. And he knows it might raise eyebrows when the state wraps up that investigation even though the school can’t come up with any answers.

That’s exactly what Palmer thought had happened at the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, a K-12 school which has been under investigation for what state officials called “extensive evidence of testing irregularities.”

Palmer said his own administrators looked into the suspicious test scores and found no explanation. State officials never visited or asked questions of their own, Palmer said. In October, he received a letter from the state that he thought closed the investigation. The school’ namesake, founder, and board chair believes that this would be the right decision, because his school would not and did not cheat.

"I can say to you, unequivocally, that would be a no-no,” Palmer said. “You’d have to know my team, and you have to know me, to know how strongly I feel about that.”

Palmer’s school is one of four Philadelphia-area charters that remained under investigation this year after first being flagged by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) in 2009 for statistically improbable test results. State officials now confirm that the investigation at one of the four – Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) in Chester – has been closed even though an internal review produced no answers.

Palmer thought his school’s case was closed, too, until state officials denied that while this story was being reported.

Investigations at two other schools, Imhotep Institute Charter and the Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter (PET), remain underway, according to PDE spokesperson Tim Eller, who confirmed that outside investigators have been involved with both inquiries. Administrators at Imhotep and PET did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Additional information about any of the investigations is scarce. State officials provided copies of letters sent recently to Palmer and CCCS which summarize the schools’ inconclusive investigations, spell out new rules for future testing, and note that PDE may still adjust the schools’ adequate yearly progress ratings under the No Child Left Behind law.

Neither letter explicitly states that the schools’ investigations are now “closed.” But state officials subsequently used that word to describe the CCCS case and included it on a list released on Sept. 21 of “closed,” but not conclusive, investigations.

Walter Palmer said his attorneys were told by state officials that the Palmer case, too, was closed. Eller disputes that, but would not go into detail about what might be next for Palmer.

“The department did not close its investigation related to Walter Palmer,” Eller said. “Even when a PSSA investigation has been completed, these matters are not necessarily closed as there are multiple dimensions including imposing conditions on future administrations of the PSSA and the possibility of professional discipline.”

He declined, however, to explain what distinguishes Walter Palmer’s case from that of CCCS.

Andy Porter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said it made sense to give schools the first crack at addressing their own issues

But he said an inconclusive internal probe at a school with strong statistical indications of cheating should be followed by an external investigation. “A strong message has to be sent that cheating is unacceptable and it will not be tolerated. It will be sought out and it will be stamped out,” Porter said.

That’s not the message he got from the PDE letters sent to Palmer and CCCS. “Reading those letters left me breathless,” Porter said. “When I read those letters, I didn’t hear any shoe pounding on the table.”

‘The state never came’

Palmer, a charter pioneer and longtime advocate for community-controlled schools, said it was a “shock” to learn that his 1,300-student school had been flagged by PDE for possible cheating, based on a statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on the 2010 and 2011 PSSAs.

Palmer said that once notified of the state’s concerns, his administrators conducted an extensive internal review. They “talked to every individual teacher,” he said, and were “constantly in touch with the state.”

But no independent investigators ever visited the school, he said – neither PDE officials, nor investigators from the Office of the Inspector General, nor attorneys working for the state. “The state never came to our school. … And they never monitored the tests that came after that,” Palmer said.

Palmer’s internal review yielded only theories about what might have happened, he said.

New testing security measures put in place for 2012 were followed by a significant drop in scores. For 11th graders, proficiency rates dropped by 38 points in reading and 46 points in math.

Palmer said that may be attributable to the arrival of new students: “We expanded [and] took in a bunch of [new] kids, all in the testing grades.”

Palmer said that once his staff had completed their investigation, the school pressed state officials for a resolution for months. In October 2012, a letter from Deputy Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq arrived, which read, “We understand that the Charter School has concluded its investigation … and notwithstanding the extensive evidence of testing irregularities, the Charter School’s investigation did not yield any clear explanation for the cause of the high number of wrong-to-right erasures.”

The letter directed the school to “vigilantly” secure future tests, following a “security plan” approved by PDE. The department prohibited teachers from proctoring tests for their own students or proctoring any students alone.

The letter did not explicitly declare Palmer’s case “closed.” But one of the school’s attorneys, Mark Seiberling of Conrad O’Brien, soon sent an email to Palmer officials saying that he had “good news” – PDE officials had told him personally that PDE’s letter “was a ‘closure’ letter” and that that unless more evidence of cheating emerged, “neither PDE nor the Office of the Inspector General intends to interview any teachers or administrators at the school.”

In November, Palmer school released a statement saying, “the Pennsylvania Department of Education and its attorneys confirmed that as of October 3, 2012 that the letter Walter D. Palmer LLPCS received was a closure letter and the end of an investigation.”

Palmer was surprised to discover later that PDE considers his case to be open. “Whatever the state says is required, we’ll do,” he said. “We want to cooperate.”

(The print version of this Notebook story states that “state officials now confirm that investigations at … Palmer’s school … were closed.” This report, which reflected our understanding of the situation at the time, was written and went to production prior to the Notebook’s receiving Eller’s detailed responses on Nov. 20. The Notebook regrets any confusion.)

Asked to explain how Palmer’s attorneys might have gotten the wrong impression from PDE staff, Eller said, “I cannot speak to Palmer’s position. The department stands behind its position that the investigation is not closed.” Eller would not elaborate on what investigation-related steps may remain for state investigators or Palmer staff. However, he did say that the non-closed status of Palmer’s investigation was not due simply to the fact that Palmer must observe strict testing security measures in the future. “The future monitoring [is] a separate issue in this process,” Eller said.

No matter what comes next, Palmer said he is confident in his staff’s integrity and untroubled by any negative impact the investigation could have on his school’s reputation. “We have a 2,000-student waiting list,” he said. “People believe in us. They trust us.”

‘This is a school that defends itself’

A more complex story surrounds the investigation at Chester Community Charter School, a 3,000-student school run by the for-profit company of Gov. Corbett’s largest single campaign contributor, Vahan Gureghian.

There, the state initiated an investigation, then for unknown reasons stepped aside and allowed the school to investigate itself, documents show.

According to a Sept. 2012 letter from PDE’s Dumaresq to the school, CCCS was flagged for having “a very high number of students with a very high number of wrong-to-right erasures in 2009, 2010, and 2011.” The department launched its probe “based on the statistical improbability that the students made these erasures themselves.”

But the letter notes that “after discussions with PDE, CCCS then conducted its own investigation,” which “did not yield clear conclusions, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence of testing irregularities.” The letter says that state investigators returned to “complete” their investigation after the internal investigation concluded, but it does not indicate what they found.

The letter does not formally describe the status of the case, but in a Sept. 21 statement, state officials confirmed that the CCCS case was “closed.” Eller declined to elaborate on why Palmer’s status differs from that of CCCS.

A CCCS spokesperson would not comment on the “discussions” that led PDE to turn the investigation over to CCCS staff. PDE’s Eller said only, “CCCS requested an opportunity to conduct its own investigation and the department agreed.”

However, documents on the state’s website show that in October 2011, PDE sought a contract with the law firm Pepper Hamilton for help handling potential probe-related lawsuits.“Some schools may resist PDE’s investigation, and litigation may ensue,” the contract says.

Two months later, in December 2011, invoices from Pepper Hamilton obtained under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law show that while the attorneys were researching CCCS, they were also looking into PDE’s authority to subpoena documents or compel schools to cooperate.

Asked if CCCS considering suing the state over the investigation, school spokesperson Bruce Crawley said he did not know, but added that the state was surely aware that CCCS had separately hauled it and the Chester Upland School District into court over finances.“Maybe they [thought that] if they were doing things worthy of a filing, there would be a filing,” Crawley said.

“They know that this is a school that defends itself in a court of law.”

PDEs Eller said that neither the state nor CCCS has launched any formal legal actions related to the investigation.

Crawley said the internal investigation indicated that the high numbers of wrong-to-right erasure marks were likely the result of students’ test-taking strategies. “These kids were advised that they should be very careful to make sure they have the right answer, and if it isn’t right, don’t be concerned about going back and checking their answers,” he said.

And he suggested that a subsequent plunge in test scores was due to severe budget cuts the school endured during the battles over Chester Upland’s finances. “When you take away 50 percent of the budget [and] cause a school to lay off 53 people … the model has to be impaired,” Crawley said.

With PDE supervising the 2012 PSSA testing at the school, scores dropped 30 points in both reading and math.

Despite the inconclusive investigation, PDE has put CCCS under stringent testing procedures going forward. Materials must now be stored in a locked room monitored by a 24-hour surveillance camera under the control of an outside security firm. Students will be tested in rooms equipped with security cameras. CCCS must hire an outside agency to train all employees on proper test administration and employ an independent auditing firm to make sure procedures are followed.

Crawley said the school was happy to take steps to raise public confidence. “Monitoring to show that … all the rules [are] appropriately followed – why would we have a problem with that?” he said.

Penn’s Porter said that no matter how suspicious a school’s test scores might look, holding individual educators accountable is never easy. “No statistical analysis is going to prove who cheated, or even that there was cheating,” he said. “About the only thing you can get is a confession.”

Walter Palmer acknowledges that the current high-stakes testing policies create an incentive to cheat. “The state puts pressure on the superintendents. The superintendents put pressure on the principals. The principals put pressure on the teachers,” he said. “I suspect that some people might say, ‘My God, my job’s on the line.’

But he said he’s never heard any educator from any school admit to cheating, and he doesn’t expect to anytime soon.

For now, while the investigations at Palmer’s school and CCCS have ended, both Imhotep Charter and Philadelphia Electrical and Technology remain under scrutiny. Both await consideration for charter renewal, a process meant to take place last spring but delayed due to the ongoing investigation. Eller said that PDE has no timetable for a decision on the two. While District officials wouldn’t comment, a source close to the administration said there has been frustration at the state’s inaction.

“PDE was saying, we’re going to have something in two weeks, four weeks, it’s imminent. We kept punting,” the source said. “We wanted their investigation to be complete; that will help SRC make a decision.”

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