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Two more Philly educators disciplined in cheating investigation

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

Two more Philadelphia educators have been disciplined in the multiyear investigation into cheating on the state’s standardized tests.

Darlynn L. Gray, 54, a former principal of Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary School, and Ellen Berson, 45, a former assistant principal at McDaniel, surrendered their educator’s licenses earlier this year.

They are alleged to have “violated the integrity and security of the PSSA exams,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s list of teacher certification actions.

Both Gray and Berson voluntarily retired from the District on June 30, 2013, according to Chanice Savage, a School District spokesperson. Gray, a 20-year veteran of the District, and Berson, a 12-year veteran, were both at McDaniel when they retired.

McDaniel Elementary in South Philadelphia was one of 53 District schools targeted for investigation of suspicious erasure patterns after a forensic analysis discovered near-impossible gains on the PSSAs.

Schools under investigation were divided into three tiers, depending on the severity of cheating suspected. McDaniel was considered one of 20 Tier 2 schools to be investigated by the District and law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius.

In January 2014, the District said that 138 Philadelphia District educators had been implicated in the cheating scandal at that time. The state has so far taken action against 12 Philadelphia educators, according to the PDE site. Eight others have had criminal charges filed against them by the state’s attorney general.

Gray became principal of McDaniel in 2006. The school was part of then-District CEO Paul Vallas’ ambitious school-turnaround program, which focused on data-driven, school-based leadership as a path to dramatic improvement.

McDaniel was one of the schools grouped in what was called the CEO District, which offered principals (referred to as “turnaround specialists”) more autonomy and leadership training from the University of Virginia, but no additional resources for their schools.

They also faced stricter accountability for their performance.

Vallas told the Inquirer in 2006: “If the Phillies don’t win, you’re not going to fire the team. You’re going to fire the manager or you’re going to transfer the manager.

“When there’s persistent failure, you’ve got to look to the leadership.”

Scores at McDaniel shot up between 2006 and 2008. Third-grade reading and math proficiency rates tripled between 2005-06 and 2007-08, from less than 20 percent to more than 60 percent. Fourth-grade jumps were also dramatic.

Table from 2009 Mass Insight Education and Research Institute report.

After stricter testing-security measures were enforced on the 2012 tests, schoolwide proficiency rates plummeted, dropping more than 40 points in math and 30 points in reading.

In 2009, McDaniel was chosen as the subject of a case study on the District’s turnaround initiative. Prepared by Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, the report cited the academic gains as well as vast improvements in school climate, reduction of suspensions, and teacher morale.

“It seems clear that successful turnaround has been achieved,” the report concluded.

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