This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Forty-two Philadelphia District schools are under heightened security during the administration of this year’s state standardized tests, including a dozen schools that are under "quarantine" conditions.
The intensive monitoring comes in the midst of ongoing investigations into the possibility of widespread adult cheating on the exams at 53 District schools in 2009, 2010, and 2011. After similar security measures were put in place during the administration of last year’s exams, test scores plummeted at 160 schools across the District, in some cases by 30 percentage points or more.
"We have taken very extensive security procedures, just like the ones put in place last year," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard. "We are very confident these procedures will result in a PSSA administration process that is as secure as possible."
Tight security at some schools
Across the state, nearly every student in grades 3 through 8 takes the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exam. The results are used to determine whether schools and districts are meeting federally mandated performance targets. Consistent poor showings by a school can lead to intervention, including closure or conversion to a charter.
Eleventh graders previously took the PSSA as well. This year, though, is the first for the state’s new Keystone exams.
In Philadelphia, administration of the reading and math portions of the PSSA began Tuesday and will continue through the end of the month.
Twelve schools are subject to the District’s strictest security measures. Test booklets, student answer sheets, and other testing materials at the schools are "quarantined" and may only be opened in the presence of a dedicated monitor from the District’s central office. That monitor remains on site at the school for the entire time that students are taking the tests.
At 30 additional schools, testing materials may only be opened at the instruction of a central-office testing monitor. Each of the schools will be visited multiple times by one of 16 monitors assigned to this group of schools.
At the remaining 153 District schools, alternative programs, and annexes where the PSSAs are being taken this year, a total of 86 central office staffers will more loosely monitor the administration of the exams. Each of these schools will be visited just once during the two-week testing window.
A District spokesman declined to release the names of the schools in each "tier," or category.
The District’s three-tier system for monitoring schools during the PSSAs does not directly match the state’s three-tier system for investigating schools under investigation for past cheating.
Statewide test administration protocols — which include detailed prescriptions for everything from bathroom breaks to the materials on classroom walls that must be covered — are in effect district-wide. All test administrators, principals, test coordinators, and proctors throughout the state are also required to sign security certificates affirming that they have followed testing protocols and not tampered with testing materials.
Gallard said that, like last year, most staff in Philadelphia schools are prohibited by the state from administering the exams to their own students. The Pennsylvania Department of Education did not return calls requesting confirmation that Philadelphia is again the only traditional school district in Pennsylvania where this rule is in effect.
The investigations into past cheating, meanwhile, are ongoing.
The state Department of Education has said that its probes into 11 Philadelphia schools under the highest suspicion of possible cheating in 2009, 2010, and 2011 have not all been completed.
Gallard reiterated that the District intends to release by the end of this month the findings from its nearly year-long investigation into 20 schools where suspicious patterns of "wrong-to-right" erasures were found in student test booklets over multiple grades, subjects, and years.
That will include the District’s findings related to alleged cheating last spring at Wagner Middle School.
Wagner, which was already under investigation for possible cheating in 2009-11, was under quarantine in 2012. The District’s two most highly trained testing monitors each reported witnessing adult cheating first hand, but no action against the school was taken. One of the monitors was later fired, and the other was subjected to a disciplinary hearing.
After a December NewsWorks/Notebook report, new Superintendent William Hite ordered the investigation at Wagner reopened.
This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook