This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The state Supreme Court has ordered the Philadelphia School District to reinstate a principal who was fired due to cheating at her school on the PSSAs, or state achievement tests.
The justices denied the District’s appeal of a Commonwealth Court ruling in favor of Michelle Burns, who was principal of Tilden Middle School when test booklets were tampered with to change wrong answers to correct ones.
Both an arbitrator and Commonwealth Court had concluded that although the cheating occurred, there was insufficient evidence that Burns knew about it. Last year, the court ordered that Burns receive back pay, minus a 60-day suspension ordered by the arbitrator in 2015 for failing to adequately supervise test administration and security.
The cheating took place at least between 2009 and 2011, when the state conducted a forensic analysis of test booklets for such irregularities as wrong-t0-right erasure patterns that were statistically improbable. Dozens of city schools and scores of others around the state were found to have some irregularities, but relatively few educators have been punished as a result of the scandal.
Burns was principal of Tilden between 2006 and 2010. She was fired in 2014, when she was principal of Kensington Health Sciences.
Her case was appealed by the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), which represents principals. In 2015, an arbitrator found Burns’ behavior to be "negligent," but ruled that termination was an excessive penalty.
Common Pleas Court Judge Linda Carpenter sided with the District, ruling that it "strains credulity to argue that public policy does not dictate that one of a school principal’s main duties is to ensure that … tests are to be free of cheating and manipulation."
Burns and CASA appealed to Commonwealth Court, which in April reinstated the arbitrator’s finding on the grounds that although "a fundamental public policy exists to ‘preserve the integrity of PSSA testing,’" the arbitrator concluded only that Burns failed to stop the cheating and did not participate in it.
The Supreme Court’s denial of the District’s appeal came without comment.
A spokesman said the District would not comment on the ruling because it was a personnel matter.