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Philly teacher has credentials suspended in test-score probe

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

Two years ago, Ronald Paulus of Bok Technical High School won a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, nominated by his peers for, among other accolades, "helping establish Bok’s success" on the state standardized tests, the PSSAs.

But on July 9, his teaching credentials were suspended for two months by a state disciplinary board due to "allegations that [Paulus] failed to follow proper PSSA test administration procedures."

Paulus becomes the fourth Philadelphia educator to be sanctioned by the state in the investigation of testing irregularities in city schools. His penalty is the least severe of the four. His certifications to teach high school English and Communications were suspended between June 25 and Aug. 25 of this year — apparently timed to coincide with summer vacation.

The information about the action against Paulus is listed on the Pennsylvania Department of Education site that records disciplinary actions against educators. The department has made no separate announcements regarding actions it has taken.

Bok is one of 12 so-called Tier 1 schools flagged for possible cheating that are being investigated directly by the state. In all, 53 District schools were flagged. The state disciplinary action comes amid indications that the District is getting ready to release the results of its own investigation into 19 other District schools. A probe of a third group of schools will begin in September.

Denies wrongdoing

In a settlement with Pennsylvania Department of Education that state officials provided to the Notebook, Paulus, who was Bok’s testing coordinator, denied all wrongdoing and "asserts that there is no factual or legal basis for the allegations in the complaint," which was received by the department in September 2012. There is no indication of when the alleged violations took place.

According to the settlement, Paulus and the department mutually agreed to forgo "the delay, expense, and uncertainty associated with litigating the complaint." Paulus, in denying wrongdoing, agreed to the suspension and waived the right to have a hearing on the facts before the Professional Standards and Practices Commission. PDE also agreed to "recommend to [Paulus’] employer that no further disciplinary action be taken against him."

Reached briefly by telephone on Friday, Paulus said, "I did not cheat, and I was never under suspicion of cheating." He said that the infraction he decided not to contest, due to the expense involved, had to do with a technicality about how students were allowed to take make-up exams.

No more specifics about the allegations were available.

According to people who are familiar with investigations of test-score irregularities here and elsewhere, including Atlanta, sometimes students are allowed to take make-up tests when they weren’t actually absent on the day of testing. Often the make-up tests are conducted in the library with less-stringent proctoring. Or students can be directed to the make-up room after someone viewed their test booklets in violation of procedure and found that they did not complete one or more sections.

Two principals or former principals in District schools have been cited in the investigations resulting from the cheating scandal.

Those principals, Barbara McCreery and Lola Marie O’Rourke, both voluntarily surrendered administrative but not instructional licenses. McCreery was the former principal of Communications Tech High School and this past year was principal of Bok Technical High School before she retired. O’Rourke was the former principal of Locke Elementary.

A former charter school assistant principal, Thomas Conway, from Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter School, also agreed to a three-year suspension of his administrative credentials and a six-month suspension of his instructional credentials.

The lack of action against any other educators to date most likely means that they are contesting the charges brought by the state in a misconduct complaint, sources said, which is the prelude for disciplinary action by the Professional Standards and Practices Commission.

Paulus’ May 2011 Lindback honor said that he "serves as mentor to new teachers and encourages struggling students. He is credited with helping establish Bok’s success on the PSSA tests, having designed a teaching model complete with Saturday classes. More than two-thirds of the students attended. This English teacher and the entire faculty celebrate the fact that the school has attained adequate yearly progress six out of the last seven years." The Lindback Award is given each spring to exemplary teachers and principals.

After the cheating scandal broke two years ago, Bok was among 53 schools put under investigation. Classifying it as a Tier 1 school meant that it was flagged for significant erasures on test-score booklets and designated for direct investigation by the state. The state told the District to investigate 20 Tier 2 schools itself, and later made it responsible also for probing 22 so-called Tier 3 schools. (One of the Tier 2 schools, Wagner Middle School, was later elevated to Tier 1 status.)

At Bok in 2011 and 2012, test scores declined and the school did not make adequate yearly progress. On the 2012 test, the first year for which more stringent test security was put in place, 25 percent of students scored proficient in math and 31 percent in reading. In 2011, the figures were 45 percent in math and 36 percent in reading. In 2010, 71 percent of students were proficient in math and 53 percent in reading.

Bok is closing this year, and its programs are being relocated to South Philadelphia High School.

Last September, Ronald Tomalis, who was state secretary of education at the time, predicted that charges or sanctions would be brought against more than 100 educators across the state. So far, besides the four in Philadelphia, there has been only one other recent certification sanction against a Pennsylvania educator, an Erie teacher.

The state began investigating possible cheating in dozens of districts and charter schools after the Notebook disclosed the existence of a comprehensive forensic analysis of 2009 tests by the company the state has hired to construct and administer the PSSA. The analysis flagged statistical anomalies in dozens of districts and some charter schools statewide, including patterns of erasures from wrong-to-right answers that were highly unlikely to occur by chance.

Tomalis ordered erasure analyses of 2010 and 2011 tests and put new security measures in place in charter schools and districts that were flagged, including Philadelphia. He subsequently attributed a sharp drop in test scores statewide on the PSSA in 2012 to the new security measures.

Robert McGrogan, president of the principals’ union, said that he believes the investigations conducted by both the state and the District have been "very thorough." But, he added: "This has hurt children, communities and undermined the integrity of a countless number of hard-working men and women simply by association. The profession and craft remain under suspicion because of the actions of a relative few."

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