Info is scarce on cheating probes at 4 area charters

State investigations have been closed at Walter Palmer and a Chester school even though irregularities were unexplained.

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

Update: Pennsylvania Department of Education officials now say that “the department did not close its investigation related to Walter Palmer.” See below for details.

Walter Palmer knows it sounds odd to ask a school suspected of cheating to investigate itself. And he knows it might raise eyebrows when the state closes that investigation even though the school can’t come up with any answers.

That’s exactly what happened at the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, a K-12 school where an internal investigation found no explanation for what state officials called “extensive evidence of testing irregularities.” But its namesake, founder, and board chair insists that his school would not and did not cheat.

“I can say to you, unequivocally, that would be a no-no,” Palmer said. “You’d have to know my team, and you have to know me, to know how strongly I feel about that.”

Palmer’s school is one of four Philadelphia-area charters that remained under investigation this year after first being flagged by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) in 2009 for statistically improbable test results. State officials now confirm that investigations at two of those four charters – Palmer’s school and Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) in nearby Chester – were closed even though internal reviews produced no answers.

Investigations at two other schools, Imhotep Institute Charter and the Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter (PET), remain underway, according to PDE spokesperson Tim Eller, but he would not say whether those probes are purely internal or involve outside investigators. Administrators at Imhotep and PET did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Additional information about any of the investigations is scarce. State officials provided copies of the letters closing the investigations at Palmer and CCCS; the letters say PDE may still adjust the schools’ adequate yearly progress ratings under the No Child Left Behind law. But officials did not respond to detailed follow-up questions.

Andy Porter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said it made sense to give schools the first crack at addressing their own issues.

But he said an inconclusive internal probe at a school with strong statistical indications of cheating should be followed by an external investigation. “A strong message has to be sent that cheating is unacceptable and it will not be tolerated. It will be sought out, and it will be stamped out,” Porter said.

He didn’t see that message in the PDE letters closing the investigations at Palmer and CCCS.

“Reading those letters left me breathless,” Porter said. “I didn’t hear any shoe pounding on the table.”

‘The state never came’

Palmer, a charter pioneer and longtime advocate for community-controlled schools, said it was a “shock” to learn that his 1,300-student school had been flagged by PDE for possible cheating, based on a statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on the 2010 and 2011 PSSAs.

Palmer said that once notified of the state’s concerns, his administrators conducted an extensive internal review. They “talked to every individual teacher,” he said, and were “constantly in touch with the state.”

But no independent investigators ever visited the school, he said – neither PDE officials, nor investigators from the Office of the Inspector General, nor attorneys working for the state. “The state never came to our school. … And they never monitored the tests that came after that,” Palmer said.

Palmer’s internal review yielded only theories about what might have happened, he said.

New testing security measures put in place for 2012 were followed by a significant drop in scores. For 11th graders, proficiency rates dropped by 38 points in reading and 46 points in math.

Palmer said that may be attributable to the arrival of new students: “We expanded [and] took in a bunch of [new] kids, all in the testing grades.”

Palmer said that once his staff had completed their investigation, the school pressed state officials for a resolution for months. In October 2012, a letter from Deputy Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq arrived, which read, “We understand that the Charter School has concluded its investigation … and notwithstanding the extensive evidence of testing irregularities, the Charter School’s investigation did not yield any clear explanation for the cause of the high number of wrong-to-right erasures.”

The letter directed the school to “vigilantly” secure future tests, following a “security plan” approved by PDE. The department prohibited teachers from proctoring tests for their own students or proctoring any students alone.

Palmer also provided a copy of an email from attorney Mark Seiberling of Conrad O’Brien, who wrote that PDE officials told him that unless more evidence of cheating emerges, “neither PDE nor the Office of the Inspector General intends to interview any teachers or administrators at the school.”

Palmer is relieved that the investigation is over, and untroubled by its impact on his school’s reputation. “We have a 2,000-student waiting list,” he said. “People believe in us. They trust us.”

‘This is a school that defends itself’

A more complex story surrounds the investigation at Chester Community Charter School, a 3,000-student school run by the for-profit company of Gov. Corbett’s largest single campaign contributor, Vahan Gureghian.

There, the state initiated an investigation, then for unknown reasons stepped aside and allowed the school to investigate itself, documents show.

According to a September 2012 letter from PDE’s Dumaresq to the school, CCCS was flagged for having “a very high number of students with a very high number of wrong-to-right erasures in 2009, 2010, and 2011.” The department launched its probe “based on the statistical improbability that the students made these erasures themselves.”

But the letter notes that “after discussions with PDE, CCCS then conducted its own investigation,” which “did not yield clear conclusions, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence of testing irregularities.” The letter says that state investigators returned to “complete” their investigation after the internal investigation concluded, but it does not indicate what they found.

Neither state officials nor a CCCS spokesperson would comment on the “discussions” that led PDE to turn the investigation over to CCCS staff.

However, documents on the state’s website show that in October 2011, PDE sought a contract with the law firm Pepper Hamilton for help handling potential probe-related lawsuits.“Some schools may resist PDE’s investigation, and litigation may ensue,” the contract says.

Two months later, in December 2011, invoices from Pepper Hamilton obtained under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law show that while the attorneys were researching CCCS, they were also looking into PDE’s authority to subpoena documents or compel schools to cooperate.

Asked if CCCS was considering suing the state over the investigation, school spokesperson Bruce Crawley said he did not know, but added that the state was surely aware that CCCS had separately hauled it and the Chester Upland School District into court over finances.“Maybe they [thought that] if they were doing things worthy of a filing, there would be a filing,” Crawley said.

“They know that this is a school that defends itself in a court of law.”

Crawley said the internal investigation indicated that the high numbers of wrong-to-right erasure marks were likely the result of students’ test-taking strategies. “These kids were advised that they should be very careful to make sure they have the right answer, and if it isn’t right, don’t be concerned about going back and checking their answers,” he said.

And he suggested that a subsequent plunge in test scores was due to severe budget cuts the school endured during the battles over Chester Upland’s finances. “When you take away 50 percent of the budget [and] cause a school to lay off 53 people … the model has to be impaired,” Crawley said.

With PDE supervising the 2012 PSSA testing at the school, scores dropped 30 points in both reading and math.

Despite the inconclusive investigation, PDE has put CCCS under stringent testing procedures going forward. Materials must now be stored in a locked room monitored by a 24-hour surveillance camera under the control of an outside security firm. Students will be tested in rooms equipped with security cameras. CCCS must hire an outside agency to train all employees on proper test administration and employ an independent auditing firm to make sure procedures are followed.

Crawley said the school was happy to take steps to raise public confidence. “Monitoring to show that … all the rules [are] appropriately followed – why would we have a problem with that?” he said.

Penn’s Porter said that no matter how suspicious a school’s test scores might look, holding individual educators accountable is never easy. “No statistical analysis is going to prove who cheated, or even that there was cheating,” he said. “About the only thing you can get is a confession.”

Walter Palmer acknowledges that the current high-stakes testing policies create an incentive to cheat. “The state puts pressure on the superintendents. The superintendents put pressure on the principals. The principals put pressure on the teachers,” he said. “I suspect that some people might say, ‘My God, my job’s on the line.’

But he said he’s never heard any educator from any school admit to cheating, and he doesn’t expect to anytime soon.

For now, while the investigations at Palmer’s school and CCCS have ended, both Imhotep Charter and Philadelphia Electrical and Technology remain under scrutiny. Both await consideration for charter renewal, a process meant to take place last spring but delayed due to the ongoing investigation. While District officials wouldn’t comment, a source close to the administration said there has been frustration at the state’s inaction.

“PDE was saying, we’re going to have something in two weeks, four weeks, it’s imminent. We kept punting,” the source said. “We wanted their investigation to be complete; that will help SRC make a decision.”

Update (11/25/12):

State education officials insist that the Walter D. Palmer school investigation is “not closed,” contradicting the school’s officials, who said in a recent statement that “the Pennsylvania Department of Education and its attorneys confirmed that as of October 3, 2012 that the letter Walter D. Palmer LLPCS received was a closure letter and the end of an investigation.”

Asked to explain the discrepancy, PDE spokesperson Tim Eller said, “I cannot speak to Palmer’s position. The department stands behind its position that the investigation is not closed.”

Eller would not elaborate on what investigation-related steps may remain for state investigators or Palmer staff. However, he did say that the non-closed status of Palmer’s investigation was not due simply to the fact that Palmer must observe strict testing security measures in the future. “The future monitoring [is] a separate issue in this process,” Eller said.

Reached for comment, Walter D. Palmer, founder and board chair of the school, said that “whatever the state says is required, we’ll do. We want to cooperate.”

Palmer has said previously that his understanding was that the cheating investigation was complete and no future inquiry or action on the school’s part, outside of maintaining the future test-taking security measures, was expected.

The school’s officials have said they determined that their case was “closed” after their attorney Mark Seiberling spoke directly with PDE officials order to clarify the significance of PDE’s Oct. 3 letter. Seiberling emailed to Palmer officials that PDE attorneys Pat Fullerton and Samantha Snyder had “confirmed that the Oct. 3 2012 letter … was a ‘closure letter’ with regard to the PSSA cheating investigation.” Seiberling also wrote that he understood PDE’s position to be that unless new evidence were to emerge, “neither PDE nor the Office of the Inspector General intends to interview any teachers or administrators at the school.”

The Notebook has asked both Eller and Seiberling to help clarify what was said in the conversation between Sieberling and PDE’s attorneys. Neither responded immediately to the request.

Eller also declined to elaborate on why Palmer’s status differs from that of Chester Community Charter School. Both schools received PDE letters less than a month apart noting that they’d completed inconclusive internal investigations and would be required to employ special security measures during future test administration. Neither letter explicitly declared the school’s cases “closed” or “cleared.”

However, in a Sept. 21 statement updating the status of cheating investigations PDE officials confirmed that the CCCS case was “closed.”

Asked to explain the difference between Palmer and CCCS, Eller said PDE’s letters to Palmer and CCCS show “clear differences between the two.” Eller declined to immediately elaborate on what those differences may be.

The print version of this Notebook story states that “state officials now confirm that investigations at … Palmer’s school … were closed.” This report, which reflected our understanding of the situation at the time, was written and went to production prior to the Notebook’s receiving Eller’s detailed responses on Nov. 20. The Notebook regrets any confusion.

The Notebook is seeking further clarification about this situation and will update the story when further information is available.

Update (11/21/12): Subsequent to press time for our print edition, Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller sent more detailed, written responses to questions the Notebook had sent earlier about the charter investigations. In general, he said, “Even when a PSSA investigation has been completed, these matters are not necessarily closed as there are multiple dimensions including imposing conditions on future administrations of the PSSA and the possibility of professional discipline.”

On the Walter D. Palmer investigation specifically, Eller said that the Oct. 3 letter received by the school from PDE and shared with the Notebook “speaks for itself. However, the department did not close its investigation related to Walter Palmer.” Eller pointed out that the Oct. 3 letter “does not state that Walter Palmer was cleared for 2010/2011.”

But the school’s officials say they have been informed by the state that the investigation is closed. Walter Palmer officials shared with the Notebook an email dated Oct. 25 from one of its attorneys, Mark Seiberling, saying that he had confirmed with PDE that the investigation is closed. On Nov. 9, the school issued a press release reiterating those same points.