Pa. test scores drop; state officials blame past cheating

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

By Benjamin Herold and Dale Mezzacappa
for Notebook/NewsWorks

Standardized test scores have dropped slightly across the state – and dramatically in Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania schools suspected of cheating between 2009 and 2011.

The disappointing results on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams are the product of less cheating and tight new test security measures, according to state Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis.

“This is the first year the department can confidently report that PSSA scores are a true reflection of student achievement and academic progress,” Tomalis said.

He said that even though the state’s probe of possible cheating covers only 2009, 2010, and 2011, it’s “highly probable” that test tampering took place earlier than that.

“The 2011-12 PSSA scores should be viewed as a reset point for student achievement in Pennsylvania."

Statewide, the percent of students scoring proficient or above in math and reading both dropped about one-and-a-half points. Seventy-five percent of students were proficient in math, and 72 percent were proficient in reading.

In Philadelphia, math scores dropped 8.7 percentage points and reading scores dropped 7.1 percentage points.

“These results are clearly disappointing,” said new Superintendent William Hite in a statement. “They simply remind us of the work we have ahead in developing a strong system of schools in Philadelphia and in supporting our students’ learning.”

PSSA exams are administered each spring to students in grades 3-8 and 11. In 2011-12, more than 930,000 Pennsylvania schoolchildren took the exams.

In July 2011, the Notebook/NewsWorks reported on a study showing widespread test score irregularities at dozens of Pennsylvania schools in 2009. In response, the Pennsylvania Department of Education commissioned an analysis of PSSA results from 2009 to 2011, then launched an investigation into 10 charters and 38 traditional school districts across the state.

Nine districts, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and three charter schools, all in Philadelphia, are still under investigation.

Tomalis revealed Friday that the education department has already taken unspecified “personnel actions” against a “small number” of educators who “participated in tampering of student answer sheets.”

The department will also soon file complaints against more than 100 additional educators, he said.

“When a few individuals act inappropriately, everyone, including students, is negatively impacted,” said Tomalis.

Fifty-three District schools and three area charters remain under investigation. Last month, NewsWorks and the Notebook reported that suspicious patterns of “wrong-to-right” erasures had been found across multiple grades, subjects, and years at the vast majority of those schools, including many determined by the state to be “lower priority.”

PDE is still investigating 11 District schools and at least one of the charters. A District-led investigation of 20 so-called “Tier 2” schools started last May and is expected to conclude by the end of December. The District is also now responsible for investigating 22 “Tier 3” schools that had previously been subjected only to further “analytic review.”

NewsWorks and the Notebook had previously reported sharp declines in the District schools that were under investigation.

Proficiency rates also dropped precipitously in the three city charters still under investigation. At Imhotep Institute, they plunged 30 points in reading and 38 points in math. At Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter, they went down about 30 points in both subjects at the high school level. At Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners, they went down 38 points in reading, and 46 points in math among high schoolers, with smaller declines in the lower grades.

State officials also said that 30 districts and charters have been cleared of any wrongdoing. Investigations have been closed in six others, including Chester Community Charter School, but the department will “continue to monitor” the involved schools.

Chester Community’s proficiency rates plummeted about 30 points in both reading and math, and the declines were fairly uniform across all grade levels and demographic subgroups.

The school, with more than 2,500 students on two campuses, is the state’s largest brick-and-mortar charter and is operated for-profit by Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign contributor, Vahan Gureghian. Its CEO sent a letter to parents blaming the sharp drops on severe state funding cutbacks that caused “sharp declines in services.”

Chester Community also sent out a release declaring that no disciplinary action will be taken against it and saying it will implement more stringent testing protocols, including special teacher training.

PSSA results are used for a variety of accountability purposes, including as a measure of whether schools and districts have met their federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets.

All told, just under half of Pennsylvania’s 1,439 charters and traditional public schools met AYP targets in 2012. That number is down dramatically from last year. The targets were raised this year.

In Philadelphia, just 33 schools made AYP in 2011-12, down from 110 last year.

Although state officials argued that test score declines were attributable solely to anti-cheating measures, district and charter officials said other factors, including deep cuts in state funding and corresponding cuts to school budgets and support staff, played a role.

“I don’t buy that excuse,” said Tomalis.