This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
By Benjamin Herold and Dale Mezzacappa
for WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook
The scope of the Philadelphia School District’s problem with suspicious erasures on state standardized tests is far more widespread than officials have publicly revealed.
But so far state and District investigators have launched deeper probes into suspected cheating at only a third of the 53 schools where strong evidence was found.
Confidential documents and information obtained by Newsworks and the Public School Notebook show that many of the 53 schools were flagged across multiple grades, subjects, and years for extremely high rates of “wrong-to-right” erasures on test answer forms (see graphic). The documents include results from erasure analyses conducted in 2010 and 2011, which state officials have declined to make public.
In response to those findings, the District put in place tough new test-security measures last spring. The result was huge drops in scores at nearly all of the 53 schools, according to preliminary 2012 PSSA results obtained by Newsworks and the Notebook.
At F.S. Edmonds Elementary in Northwest Philadelphia, for example, student PSSA response sheets were flagged for suspicious erasures 23 of a possible 24 times between 2009 and 2011. In 2012, the school’s scores plummeted by nearly 50 percentage points in both reading and math.
But Edmonds so far appears to have avoided direct scrutiny by state and local investigators.
The school is one of 22 determined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to be of “lower priority” and thus not subjected to on-the-ground questioning about cheating. Documents show that many of those schools showed major signs of possible cheating.
Even with forensic or statistical evidence, cheating can only be proven through eyewitness testimony or admissions of wrongdoing.
A spokesperson from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) declined to respond to requests for confirmation and explanation, saying the department would not comment on an ongoing investigation. In a statement, District officials offered little more.
But documents and conversations with sources paint a picture of a widespread problem that officials are attempting to address with a limited number of boots on the ground.
“No one is really moving at an aggressive pace on this,” said one source with firsthand knowledge of the investigation.
“The truth of it is no one wants [Philadelphia] to be the next Atlanta.”
A tiered investigation
Over the last two years, a number of big-city school districts, including Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, have been rocked by standardized test cheating scandals.
The most stunning was in Atlanta, where 178 administrators were formally implicated in an investigation that proved cheating at 44 schools, damaged the legacy of former superintendent Beverly Hall, and raised questions about the wisdom of relying on high-stakes standardized test results to measure student learning and reward schools and principals.
Pennsylvania’s investigation of possible cheating on state tests began in earnest last August, after the Notebook/NewsWorks reported on a previously unreleased “forensic audit” of 2009 PSSA results that revealed suspicious erasures and other statistical irregularities – but not hard evidence of cheating – at 10 charter schools and traditional schools in 38 districts, including Philadelphia.
The state has cleared many of those districts and charters of wrongdoing. Others were told they would continue to be monitored. The department is continuing investigations in 10 districts and charters across the state, including Philadelphia.
State officials divided the 53 Philadelphia District schools under suspicion into three tiers, each getting a different type of follow-up:
Tier One: In January, the Pennsylvania Office of the Inspector General initiated what appear to be aggressive on-the-ground investigations at 11 Tier One schools. Among those schools are Roosevelt Middle and Cayuga Elementary, where teachers have come forward anonymously to allege cheating by administrators. Last month, state officials told the Inquirer that investigations at Tier One schools have yielded some confessions and other hard evidence of cheating.
Tier Two: In early 2012, state officials told the District – beset by financial woes and in the midst of a massive restructuring – to handle the follow-up probes at the 20 Tier Two schools itself.
That group includes Strawberry Mansion High, Gen. Louis Wagner Middle, and a number of other schools where the state-commissioned analysis found egregious patterns of wrong-to-right erasures over multiple years.
The law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP is helping to investigate the Tier Two schools.
The firm is offering pro bono support to the District. To date, its lawyers have contacted only a handful of the Tier Two schools, according to sources with firsthand knowledge of the investigation.
District General Counsel Michael A. Davis said the District is “fully committed to conducting a thorough investigation.”
Tier Three: These 22 schools were slated for additional review of an unspecified nature. That list includes Edmonds and a number of other schools flagged heavily for suspicious erasures. State and District officials would not comment on reports from sources that none of the Tier Three schools have been targeted for on-the-ground questioning.
A widespread problem
In Pennsylvania, the PSSA exams are administered in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 11. Only math and reading scores are used for accountability purposes.
Forensic and statistical evidence of possible cheating on the exams is overwhelming at schools across all three of the state’s investigatory tiers, according to documents and information obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks.
Take Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson, a Tier Two high school in North Philadelphia.
In 2011, 96 percent of Elverson’s 11th graders scored proficient or advanced in math.
But last fall, a state-commissioned erasure analysis found that four of every five student response sheets for math exams administered at the school that year had huge numbers of incorrect answers that had been erased and changed to the correct answer.
After the District imposed tough new test security measures at Elverson in 2012, the school’s math scores dropped 71 percentage points in a single year.
All told, 49 of the 53 District schools involved in the cheating probe were flagged for high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures in more than one grade, subject, or year, indicating that possible cheating was not an isolated incident.
Twelve of the schools – including six not assigned by state officials to Tier One – were flagged in every tested grade and subject in a given year, indicating the possibility of coordinated, systemic cheating.
And preliminary school-by-school PSSA results from 2012, also obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks, show that 51 of 53 schools saw drops in both reading and math, most of them significant, after tougher test security was put in place last spring.
Seven of those schools experienced drops of at least 40 percentage points in at least one subject. Nineteen of the schools saw scores drop at least 20 points in both reading and math.
A typical example
General Philip Kearny Elementary, a K-8 school in Northern Liberties, is often lauded as an exemplary high-achieving, high-poverty school.
In 2009, Kearny was flagged for suspicious erasures in 3rd-grade math and 4th-grade reading.
In 2010, the school was flagged in 3rd-, 5th-, and 7th-grade math and 5th-grade reading.
And in 2011, Kearny was flagged in both reading and math in 5th, 6th, and 7th grades.
A flag in a given grade-subject combination indicate that at least 10 percent of student response sheets had five or more wrong-to-right erasures. An average PSSA response sheet contains less than one such erasure, according to state officials.
Over the three-year period, Kearny’s test scores steadily rose. In 2011, 72 percent of the school’s students scored proficient in reading and 76 percent scored proficient in math.
But in 2012, after test security was strengthened, Kearny’s scores plummeted about 22 points in both subjects.
Experts stress that numbers alone do not prove cheating.
“Unless and until people confess, I don’t think it’s definitive,” said Andrew Porter, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
But to date, say sources, no effort has been made to uncover that kind of hard evidence of wrongdoing at Kearny, a Tier Two school not yet visited by the District’s pro bono attorneys.
Although District officials would not confirm or comment on details of the cheating probe, District General Counsel Davis offered a statement:
“It is important that accuracy and integrity not be sacrificed during this process. Because the investigation into allegations of testing integrity violations on PSSA exams is ongoing, the District is unable to comment any further.”
Robert McGrogan, the president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the union that represents principals, says he expects action soon on some of the 11 schools where state investigators have been active.
“I think the likelihood exists in Tier One schools that administrators may very well have sanctions applied,” McGrogan said.
“I respect that people will be held accountable for their actions, as long as we’re talking about facts and not suppositions.”
Once school resumes in September, the Tier Two investigations begun by the District and attorneys from Morgan Lewis are expected to continue. Sources say that list includes Huey and Lamberton elementary schools as well as Elverson, a high school.
Attorneys from Morgan Lewis are also expected to begin visiting other Tier Two schools this fall.
“The District expects that the bulk of its investigation will be completed by the end of the calendar year,” wrote Davis in a statement.
State officials have offered no timeline for deciding what to do about the schools in Tier Three.