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Former principal now eighth educator charged in cheating probe

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

Another former Philadelphia school principal was arrested today, making her the eighth educator charged in the state’s probe into adult cheating on state standardized tests, Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced.

A grand jury found that, while principal at Alain Locke Elementary between 2009 and 2011, Lolamarie Davis-O’Rourke "created an environment ripe for cheating" by "proctoring students to change answers from wrong-to-right, directing teachers to help students switch answers and rewrite written responses, and changing the locks to a storage room so that only she and the building engineer could access stored test booklets," said a statement from the Attorney General’s Office.

According to a grand jury’s findings, Davis-O’Rourke confessed to filling in incomplete answer sheets.

In one case, Davis-O’Rourke was said to have arranged for a special education student to return to Locke after being transferred to a new school "for the sole purpose of taking the PSSA in a favorable testing environment."

"This type of public corruption in our education system deprives children of opportunities for learning," said Kane in the statement. "It undermines educators’ abilities to evaluate progress and set a course for our children’s successes. This office will continue to hold accountable corrupt school employees who put their own interests ahead of those of students in the classroom."

In 2012, after more stringent testing protocols were put in place at District schools, scores at Locke plummeted, dropping 42 points in math and 32 points in reading.

A statistical and forensic audit of Locke’s PSSA scores found that, on the 2010 tests, the probability that suspicious erasure patterns on tests occured naturally was less than one in 10,000. In 2011, a time when Davis-O’Rourke admitted to "more sophisticated" methods of cheating, suspicious erasure patterns were found to have less than a one in 100 million chance of occuring naturally.

The added sophistication, according to the grand jury presentment, refers to the practice of identifying and altering the answer sheets of "bubble students," students thought to be on the borderline of proficiency and thus have the most potential to cross over and raise school proficiency rates.

Investigators testified that Davis-O’Rourke said that while there were "no positive incentives for Locke to make [Adequate Yearly Progress], there were significant negative consequences if the school failed to make AYP."

She told the investigators that "there was considerable pressure from her supervisors to reach PSSA target scores," fearing that failure to hit those marks could result in the school’s closure or the administration’s replacement.

Davis-O’Rourke is charged with tampering with public records or information, forgery, tampering with records, and criminal conspiracy.

Davis-O’Rourke and another former principal, Barbara McCreery, who is now standing trial for similar charges, were the first educators to be disciplined, when they surrendered their state credentials in 2013.

The state’s Department of Education began a cheating probe in 2011 after the Notebook and NewsWorks called attention to a forensic analysis of 2009 standardized test results, which showed that cheating was highly probable in more than 200 schools statewide.

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