Test security: Philadelphia gets strictest treatment

No end in site to the new provisions, including a ban on teachers proctoring their own students.

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

Heightened security measures are expected to again be in force throughout the School District of Philadelphia when state standardized tests are administered next spring. Changes are unlikely at least until current cheating investigations are brought to a close, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) spokesman Tim Eller.

Security will again be tightest at 53 District schools under suspicion of cheating. But the most controversial change made this year – a ban on teachers administering the tests to their own students – continues to apply districtwide. Some educators believe this could lower test scores and put the District’s students at a disadvantage compared with their peers in most Philadelphia charters and statewide.

Taking teachers out of the classroom testing situation “is just not a good idea,” said Peter Kuriloff, an educational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Children are very sensitive to the testing environment.” This would be particularly true in the lower grades, he said, and particularly true if the student has good rapport with the homeroom teacher.

While there are no studies on this exact point, Kuriloff pointed to research indicating that a child is likely to score 10 or 15 points higher on an IQ test administered by someone he or she knows well than on one given by a stranger. He said there was reason to believe that there could be a similar difference in PSSA results.

Christina Puntel, a Spanish teacher at Parkway Northwest High School, explained that “for many students, the test has no meaning except that the teacher has been working with them on it all year. They have a relationship. Without the teacher in the classroom, there is a huge paradigm shift. It’s a huge loss.”

“Some children are anxious when it comes to testing,” said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan. “The classroom teachers know their kids. They know their frustration level when it comes to testing.”

With teachers removed from their classrooms last year, principals’ union president Robert McGrogan said his members also reported that “the atmosphere was different – not nearly as nurturing or comforting.”

Banning teachers from testing their own students is not standard practice, according to John Fremer, president of Caveon Consulting, a national test security firm. He recommends that teachers be allowed to administer the test but with an outside monitor in the room as well.

According to Eller of PDE, there is no ban on the teacher being in the classroom during testing. “The teacher of record could be in the room,” he said in a statement, “just not alone.”

But Philadelphia District officials say that they simply do not have enough personnel to do that: The teachers are needed as monitors in other classrooms.

This year’s ban on teachers administering tests to their own students only applied to a handful of districts and charters under suspicion of cheating. Besides the School District, they included the Hazleton School District, the Chester Community Charter School and three Philadelphia charters.

Other key changes in the test security system in Philadelphia included increased monitoring and tightened control over testing materials at the 53 schools targeted for investigation and increased emphasis districtwide on training, particularly for principals.

Under these heightened security measures, violations of testing rules were reported at 27 Philadelphia schools last spring, but most were easily corrected, such as posters with test-related information that needed to be removed from classroom walls. (The state has so far declined to respond to questions raised by a Notebook/NewsWorks story about one case where more serious testing violations were alleged at Wagner Middle School.)

“We’re committed to the same level of security” in 2013, said Rosemary Hughes, director of the District’s Office of School Innovation and Best Practices.

Chris Baugh, the District’s assessment development coordinator, said PDE officials monitoring the administration of last year’s tests had not recommended any additional security steps.

With more than 200 District schools not suspected of any testing impropriety, Fran Newberg, the District’s deputy of educational technology, accountability and assessment, said security was tightest last spring at the 53 schools in which the state had started investigations or was planning to. She said the District’s approach at this list of schools was “closely aligned” with the state’s priorities.

The PDE had already tightened control over testing materials statewide, requiring that not just principals but also assessment coordinators and proctors sign statements that materials had not been tampered with.

In the District schools under the tightest scrutiny, boxes containing test booklets were sealed with tamper-proof tape that only monitors – usually central office staff – could remove.

The 53 schools under suspicion of cheating were divided into three tiers that got different levels of follow-up. Newberg and Baugh said that the 11 schools under the tightest scrutiny were most frequently monitored by District officials during the testing period. “The upper tier schools had monitors on site every day,” Baugh said. “In some cases they practically lived at the school.” PDE monitors also dropped in on these schools unannounced, he said.

Baugh also stressed the role of training, partly because “a lot of people didn’t remember the rules. We really reviewed the do’s and don’ts.” Before testing last spring, more than 500 principals and test coordinators attended day-long seminars on testing procedures run by the PDE and their Minnesota-based testing contractor, Data Recognition Corporation (DRC). Previously, only test coordinators had been trained.

District officials say they have been able to provide enhanced security by juggling current staff and with virtually no extra expense – literally just storage boxes and tape.

Increased training for test administrators and awareness that there will be a forensic review of the test booklets for suspicious patterns are the two steps most effective in preventing cheating, according to Phillip Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. Both of these are now in place here.

But PFT president Jordan has strongly objected to districtwide measures that specifically target Philadelphia, saying they “make the assumption that all teachers are cheating and they’re not. Most [teachers] are insulted.

“You have a ‘test and sanction’ environment in this country, not just in Philadelphia,” he said in an interview. “Principals and teachers are put under a tremendous amount of pressure. There is a lack of resources going into the schools, and the expectations keep getting greater.”

Some educators, in fact, think that this environment has in the past encouraged cheating.

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational management and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that there has been “typically no incentive for anyone to take threats to test security seriously.

“Educators are happy when test scores go up,” Cizek said, “parents are happy when their children do well, students are pleased when they are declared to be ‘proficient.’ The public is assuaged when all schools appear to be increasing learning.”