State cheating probe was widened to involve more than 50 District schools

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

by Benjamin Herold for the Notebook/WHYY’s NewsWorks

Pennsylvania’s inquiry into possible cheating on state standardized tests in Philadelphia recently widened to involve more than 50 District schools, far more than previously believed to have attracted the attention of state officials.

But with the administration of the 2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams barely a month away, District officials say they don’t know how many of those schools are under active investigation or how the state is deciding which schools warrant further scrutiny.

Officials from the District’s Office of Accountability and Assessment confirmed this new development in the state’s highly secretive investigation.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) “requested additional information on some schools for additional analysis,” wrote District Deputy Chief of Educational Technology Fran Newburg and Executive Director of Accountability and Assessment Daniel Piotrowski in response to questions submitted via email by the Notebook/NewsWorks.

“They have asked us not to disclose this list,” they added.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the investigation, however, told the Notebook/NewsWorks that in late 2011, state officials began asking questions about “PSSA administration for the past three years” from “on or around 53 schools” in the District.

Newburg and Piotrowski stressed that not all of the schools from which the state has requested further information are under active investigation.

But they also said the District does not yet know how many of its schools have been, or will be, visited by representatives of the state Inspector General’s office.

The Philadelphia Inquirer previously reported that agents from the Inspector General’s office had begun interviewing teachers at 13 schools identified by District officials last August as warranting additional scrutiny based on suspicious results on the 2009 PSSA.

Now, it appears that the state expanded the pool of Philadelphia schools deemed worthy of attention based on analyses of PSSA results from two additional years – 2010 and 2011.

Newburg and Piotrowski confirmed that the state is using information from the 2010 and 2011 analyses, but said PDE has not provided any data to the District.

PDE has “not shared the specific analyses or thresholds used” to identify the schools that were targeted for further questioning and possible investigation, they said.

The status of the state’s analyses of 2010 and 2011 PSSA results is a source of contention.

Last summer, state Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis ordered “forensic audits” of the 2010 and 2011 exams. The directive came after the Notebook asked for, received, and published the results of a state-commissioned forensic audit of 2009 PSSA results that flagged dozens of schools statewide – including 28 District schools – for suspicious test results.

Forensic audits look for suspicious patterns of wrong-to-right erasures on student response sheets and statistical anomalies such as unlikely swings in student proficiency rates from year to year. They provide fodder for further investigation, but do not prove cheating in and of themselves.

PDE spokesperson Tim Eller told the Notebook in September 2011 that PDE had received the analyses of 2010 and 2011 PSSA results.

Last month, however, Eller seemed to reverse course, writing in an email to the Notebook that “PDE does not have the [2010 and 2011] forensic audits.”

PDE has also refused several requests made by the Notebook under the state’s Right to Know law for documents relating to the 2010 and 2011 forensic audits. An appeal of their most recent refusal is currently being considered by the state’s Office of Open Records.

State officials declined to comment or to clarify the status of the 2010 and 2011 analyses.

Now, with administration of the 2012 PSSA exams is scheduled to begin in March, District officials are trying to improve test administration procedures districtwide and target certain schools for heightened test security measures.

“At all schools, monitors will be tasked to do more in the schools and stay longer when they visit,” said Newburg and Piotrowski. “Some schools will have multiple monitors.”

In addition, the District has changed its policies for handling testing materials. At some schools, said Newburg and Piotrowksi, access to testing materials will be limited to central office employees. Some schools will not be allowed to open the boxes containing their school’s exams until just a day or two before the test is to be administered.

To be safe, said Newburg and Piotrowski, “We have decided to have more stringent requirements than PDE.”

Notebook Contributing Editor Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting for this article.