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Scores plunged in many schools targeted in cheating probe; early grades did poorly

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

By Benjamin Herold and Dale Mezzacappa
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Standardized test scores dropped precipitously in Philadelphia District schools this year, with most of the biggest declines occurring in schools under investigation for possible cheating and in the early grades.

According to preliminary results from the 2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks, districtwide scores fell roughly 8 percentage points in math and 6 percentage points in reading.

In a year when stricter test protocols were in place, 51 of 53 District schools involved in a statewide probe of suspicious erasures on standardized tests saw scores drop in both reading and math. In the vast majority of the 53, the drops were more than 10 percentage points. Two schools saw scores in one subject increase slightly.

Some of those schools saw scores plummet by as many as 30 or 40 – in one case, 70 – percentage points. These results were accompanied by new evidence suggesting persistent cheating on the state test at the 53 schools through 2011.

Across the District, the test-score declines are most stark in the elementary grades.

In 3rd-grade math, for example, the number of students scoring proficient or above dropped from 66 percent to roughly half. Third-grade reading scores fell about 13 percentage points.

Similar sharp decreases occurred up through grade 6. Scores leveled off somewhat in grade 7 and 8, and actually rose slightly in grade 11.

The PSSA results obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks are preliminary and still subject to some minor adjustments, but are not likely to swing significantly.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the District is disappointed in the results and is still attempting to determine the reasons for the drops.

In Pennsylvania, the PSSA is administered to grades 3 through 8, and again in grade 11. Between 2002 and 2011, there had been a consistent upward trajectory for both reading and math scores in nearly every grade – a trend often touted by District and city leaders.

Some of those results have been thrown into doubt, however, by the combination of this year’s PSSA results and a developing scandal involving possible cheating on the exams between 2009 and 2011.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education launched a statewide probe into suspicious test score results last summer, after the Notebook/NewsWorks reported on a previously unreleased 2009 “forensic audit” detailing suspicious erasures and other statistical irregularities in the results of dozens of schools across the commonwealth.

Confidential information obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks shows that nearly all of the 53 District schools currently involved in the state’s investigation were flagged for extremely high numbers of suspicious “wrong-to-right” erasures in multiple subjects, grades, and/or years between 2009 and 2011.

Guided by those findings and by directives from the state, the District last spring imposed tough new test security measures in schools across the city, with the harshest measures reserved for the schools under the greatest suspicion of cheating.

It is not possible to quantify the impact of the new protocols. But a Notebook/NewsWorks review found that 48 of the 53 schools involved in the cheating probe saw noticeable test-score drops in at least one subject in 2012, with all but two showing declines in both.

Some of the declines at schools being probed are mind-boggling:

  • Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson saw its 11th-grade math scores drop more than 70 percentage points.
  • F.S. Edmonds, a K-6 elementary school in Northwest Philadelphia, saw its schoolwide scores plunge nearly 50 points in both reading and math.
  • Emlen, another K-6 elementary school in Northwest Philadelphia, saw its schoolwide scores drop roughly 40 points in both reading and math.

All told, 19 of the 53 schools involved in the cheating probe experienced drops of at least 20 points in both reading and math.

By contrast, only a two of the nearly 200 District schools not under investigation showed drops of 20 points or more in both reading and math.

Many of those other District schools, however, did show declines of 20 points or more in one subject, double-digit declines in both subjects, or huge fluctuations in proficiency rates from grade to grade.

Nebinger Elementary is one of a number of schools flagged for suspicious erasure patterns in the 2009 state analysis but not included in the current list of 53 schools under investigation. Its math and reading scores dropped this year by nearly 25 and 20 percentage points, respectively.

At Jay Cooke Elementary, which has not been flagged for suspicious erasures, there were still unusual patterns. Only about three in 10 3rd graders scored proficient in math, down about 50 points from the year before.

Cooke was also one of a number of schools that showed wide swings in proficiency rates from grade to grade – another statistical sign that merits a closer look, according to experts.

Some special-admission schools also showed significant declines. Scores at Girls’ High dropped more than a dozen points in both reading and math, while Academy at Palumbo experienced a double-digit drop in reading.

Fewer than 30 schools across the District appear to have improved test scores in both subjects. The largest gains were made by High School of the Future, where scores went up roughly 25 points in both reading and math. Parkway West High School also showed more than 20-point jumps in both subjects.

It is not yet clear how many District schools met their federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress performance targets, which were raised this year.

On Friday, District officials will recognize principals of those schools that hit their targets during a ceremony at Fels High School. A ceremony recognizing schools for making AYP that was scheduled for Friday has been cancelled until new Superintendent William Hite officially takes over.

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