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Reducing the temptation to cheat

Changes in federal law could lower the stakes attached to tests. Meanwhile, District investigations remain open.

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

Pennsylvania’s long-running standardized test cheating investigation is now well into its fifth year, and officials say there’s still no end in sight.

But even as investigations continue, Congress now stands on the brink of major revisions to the law that many blame for widespread adult cheating on high-stakes tests: the No Child Left Behind Act.

The potential landmark deal would loosen years of federal test-related mandates.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it a “serious bipartisan plan” to upgrade an “outdated” law. Lori Shorr, top education aide to Mayor Nutter, says it would re-establish states as “the locus of power” when it comes to policy.

By rolling back requirements that states intervene in schools with low test scores, the revised approach “takes the federal foot off the testing accelerator,” said Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

It would be the first major revision of NCLB since it became law in 2002 and kicked off an era of high-stakes testing and persistent reports of cheating incidents large and small.

Pennsylvania’s investigations of cheating started in 2011 after the revelation that dozens of schools statewide appeared to have systematically falsified test results. So far it has produced arrests, firings, and resignations. It remains open in Philadelphia on at least two fronts.

It was just one in a surge of scandals nationwide, none bigger than Atlanta’s. There, the superintendent was indicted and 11 district employees – including teachers and administrators – were convicted on racketeering charges; sentences were up to 20 years.

Other cases have turned up in Florida, Texas, Washington, D.C., and more – 43 states in all, by Schaeffer’s analysis.

Much of it appears to be a clear example of what sociologists call Campbell’s Law: The more a measure is used for decision-making, the more subject that measure is to corruption and abuse.

“We do not have widely accepted measures of school quality other than testing,” said Helen Gym, the longtime school advocate recently elected to City Council.

“That’s why Campbell’s Law holds true for testing. We’ve eliminated, or failed to create, additional measures that round out test scores.”

One probe down, two to go

Pennsylvania’s investigation has been complex from the start, involving the state inspector general, the Department of Education, the attorney general, and school districts including Philadelphia’s.

At one point under former Gov. Tom Corbett, officials were reportedly examining schools in 38 districts. In 2012, then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis promised “well over 100” disciplinary actions.

Since then a dozen Philadelphia educators have been sanctioned, as well as one in Erie and one at the Chester Community Charter School, where a further, self-conducted investigation proved inconclusive. Handfuls of employees have been sanctioned by other districts around the state.

Fifteen districts, including charters, agreed to new security plans. One was Chester Community, where the state imposed strict testing protocols; scores plummeted.

By far the most activity has been in Philadelphia, where an internal probe flagged dozens of staffers for ethical violations and a criminal investigation indicted eight educators.

The Philadelphia inquiry features three separate “tiers.” Only one has been completed and closed: Tier 2, originally a group of 20 schools, handled by District officials and volunteers from a local law firm.

The two other tiers of investigation remain officially open.

The top tier, for the most serious alleged offenders, has been under investigation from the start by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane and produced the eight arrests.

According to news reports, the embattled Kane’s probe once involved as many as 69 Philadelphia educators, but the last development was the arrest of an elementary school principal almost one year ago.

On the other end of the spectrum are the 22 “Tier 3” schools, which the state deemed a lower priority although statistical evidence was still significant.

As with Tier 2, the District alone is responsible for this group, and it began gathering data about two years ago. That inquiry remains in a preliminary “assessment” phase, according to spokesperson Fernando Gallard.

“We’re not in the investigative level of it – we’re still at the level where we’re assessing our ability to investigate these schools,” Gallard said. He cited lack of manpower for the delay, which he acknowledged will make any investigation increasingly difficult.

“The longer you wait, the less ability you have to be able to speak to individuals at the schools,” Gallard said.

Tier 3 waits, and PDE watches

Schaeffer said it should be no surprise when a cheating investigation takes time, especially when districts go it alone.

“School systems have neither the expertise nor the independence to dig deep enough to find the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be,” he said.

But Gallard strongly denied that the District is dragging its feet on Tier 3.

“We could have thrown our hands up and said, ‘That’s it,’ and closed it two years ago,” Gallard said. “We still believe this is something that needs to be assessed.”

The completed Tier 2 investigation, he said, showed a district that is “very aggressive” about punishing cheating.

Nineteen schools were ultimately investigated. Of the eight principals disciplined, three were fired; of the seven teachers disciplined, three were also fired, Gallard said.

In all, 69 employees were flagged. Of those, at least 29 have left the District and the others faced disciplinary conferences.

Little else has been said publicly about the Tier 2 findings, beyond a two-page summary released in early 2014. Two of the three fired principals won their jobs back in arbitration, with appeals scheduled for December.

And Gallard could not say whether or when the District would be able to resolve its issues and begin investigating Tier 3.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania education officials are still watching the District closely – along with districts statewide.

The original scandal broke after the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks obtained state forensic reports showing suspiciously high levels of wrong-to-right erasures. The Department of Education now performs those forensic tests annually, while maintaining increased levels of test security. A team meets to review the forensics “near-weekly,” said PDE spokesperson Nicole Reigelman.

Officially, Philadelphia remains on “open investigation” status, the only investigation of a district that is ongoing.

Opening the door to change

One aspect of the cases that the various investigations have said relatively little about is motive. Kane’s indictments contain some detail – such as allegations of “a culture of cheating” at Cayuga Elementary – but the District’s Tier 2 probe produced no such assessment.

“We don’t know what drove these individuals,” Gallard said. “We don’t know specifically why they did it.”

Not all cheating is about gaming evaluations for personal or institutional gain. Staff sometimes cross the ethical line with good intentions, trying to help students.

But in investigations everywhere, teachers, principals, and administrators have cited relentless pressure to boost scores as the driving factor behind systemic cheating.

No one defends the practice – “Cheating can never be justified,” said Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers – but many say the high-stakes NCLB framework guarantees at least some amount of cheating.

“It’s part of the human condition that when stakes are high, some people get the results they need by hook or by crook,” said Schaeffer.

Whether the proposed changes to NCLB will lead to changes in the way Pennsylvania uses test data is “hard to know,” said Shorr. Washington is moving “very fast now, after sitting for so long.”

Lawmakers in Harrisburg remain highly interested in policies that tie test data to school closures and teacher layoffs, she said.

But to many observers, the developments in Washington represent an encouraging move to uncouple data collection from high-stakes consequences.

“The intent, it seems, is to focus on student learning, rather than student testing,” said Robert McGrogan, head of the Philadelphia principals’ union.

The new NCLB deal in Congress may not be an immediate game-changer. Pennsylvania’s laws remain, as do the political dynamics that put those laws in place.

But the proposed NCLB revision “opens the door” to new and less test-focused evaluation systems at the state level, Schaeffer said.

It takes away “the old excuse: ‘The feds made me do it,’” he said. “It sends a message to other levels to back off. Whether that happens depends on the political process.”

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