Philly schools chief vows ‘strong message’ against cheating on tests

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

Superintendent William Hite says the Philadelphia School District is "close to wrapping up" its piece of a far-reaching investigation into cheating on state tests, adding that some city educators may soon be disciplined.

"I feel very strongly about the evidence that is there," Hite said.

"We’re intending to send a very strong message publicly about individuals who are found to have participated in cheating our students."

Hite’s comments came during an interview to discuss his new "Action Plan v1.0," which outlines the new superintendent’s priorities for the District. Included in the plan is a commitment to "ensure testing integrity."

Last year, a state-commissioned analysis found suspicious erasure patterns on student response sheets on the 2009, 2010, and 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams at dozens of schools across the state, including 53 District-managed schools and four area charters.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has been investigating 11 of those city schools, dubbed "Tier One" schools. In an email, Tim Eller, the department’s press officer, wrote "there is no specific timeline" for the state’s end of the investigation to be completed.

For its part, the District has been working since May with pro bono attorneys from the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP to investigate 20 "Tier Two" schools. That group includes Strawberry Mansion High, Huey Elementary, and a number of other schools with telltale signs of adult cheating in multiple grades, subjects and years. Some of these schools have now been slated for closure.

"The [Tier Two] investigations were comprehensive. They were thorough. They were done by a third party, not by the District itself," Hite said. "We think [they are] going to provide us some pretty significant information on which we can act."

The probes into the city schools in the third group, many of which also showed signs of serious adult manipulation, have not yet begun.

The Wagner probe

Last month, Hite ordered his general counsel to reopen an investigation into serious cheating complaints at Wagner Middle School during the administration of the 2012 exams. That decision came after NewsWorks, together with the Public School Notebook, reported that senior District officials minimized or ignored multiple reports of infractions witnessed firsthand at Wagner by District test monitors.

District officials are expected to handle disciplinary action taken against educators found to have cheated, including possible suspensions or terminations. The state Department of Education could also move to revoke educators’ licenses or certificates.

To date, no cheating-related disciplinary action has been taken against any Philadelphia administrators, said Robert McGrogan, the president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, which represents principals.

The state, meanwhile, has filed more than 140 professional misconduct complaints against educators statewide, Eller said.

Stakes in testing to go higher

Even as District officials vow to crack down on cheating and continue tightening test security, the stakes attached to state standardized tests continue to rise. Beginning next school year, student results on the exams will play a major role in how Pennsylvania school districts evaluate teachers.

Hite said the research is clear that overreliance on test scores can "create incentives for the wrong types of behaviors."

But he said he’s confident that the new teacher evaluation system won’t exacerbate the cheating problem in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

"I think the state system allows for enough multiple types of measures to ameliorate the concern that one test will drive the evaluation of an individual," Hite said.