Two principals are first Philly casualties of cheating probes

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

In the first fallout from Pennsylvania’s nearly two-year-old investigation into possible cheating on state standardized tests at 53 Philadelphia District schools, two city principals have surrendered their administrative credentials.

Barbara McCreery, who oversaw astronomical test score gains in 2010 at Communications Technology High in Southwest Philadelphia, was alleged to have “violated the integrity and security of the PSSA by erasing and changing student answers, creating an answer key and manipulating student data."

Lola Marie O’Rourke, former principal of Locke Elementary in West Philadelphia, faced similar allegations, including that she directly provided answers to students.

The surrendering of their credentials by the two administrators represent "an acknowledgement of responsibility of misconduct,” said Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) Press Secretary Tim Eller.

“The department’s focus is to ensure the integrity of the state assessments,” he said. “These individuals surrendering their certificates is indicative of the department’s commitment to prevent these activities from occurring."

Neither McCreery nor O’Rourke will be able to serve as a principal again in Pennsylvania. Both will retain their teaching certificates, but neither will be able to teach in the Philadelphia School District. O’Rourke also surrendered her "letter of eligibility,” which would allow her to be a superintendent.

“The School District supports the recent actions taken by PDE and believes that there must be severe consequences for adults that have violated testing integrity protocols in schools,” said District spokesman Fernando Gallard in a statement.

McCreery and O’Rourke are the first Philadelphia educators to face sanctions in the city’s ongoing cheating scandal.

Neither returned calls for comment.

McCreery was removed as principal of Bok Technical High School on Wednesday, according to Gallard, ending a 38-year career in Philadelphia schools.

O’Rourke left the District at the end of August and now works as an administrator in the Trenton public schools.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education first began looking into adult cheating on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in fall 2011, after the Notebook and NewsWorks reported on a 2009 analysis commissioned by the state that showed statistically improbable test scores and patterns of suspicious “wrong-to-right” erasures at dozens of schools across the state. Based on suspicious statistical patterns from 2009, 2010 and 2011, a total of 53 District-run schools and three city charters have been under investigation, as well as several other charters and districts around the state.

Eller said Wednesday that the state’s investigation into 11 so-called “Tier One” schools, being led by the state’s Office of Inspector General, is ongoing. Private law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP received $750,000 to help with the probe. Eller would not comment on whether more educators would face disciplinary action.

Gallard said that the District’s investigation into 20 so-called “Tier Two” schools, which has included more than 450 interviews, will be completed later this week. A general summary of findings is expected to be released later this month. The District is relying on pro bono assistance from the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.

Twenty-two “Tier Three” schools, many of which were found to have signs of adult cheating in multiple grades, subjects, and years, have not yet been subject to any investigation.

Both District veterans

McCreery, who has been with the District since 1975, became principal of Comm Tech in 2003.

In 2010, her last year at the school, 11th-grade proficiency rates in math at Comm Tech jumped 40 points, to 70 percent proficient. In reading, proficiency rates jumped 22 points, to 75 percent proficient.

But McCreery was transferred out of the school at the end of the year. She spent two years filling in at other schools, mostly on special assignment.

After McCreery departed, signs of cheating at Comm Tech disappeared. Test scores at the school plummeted 38 points in reading and 45 points in math.

Saliyah Cruz, McCreery’s replacement as principal of the school, told NewsWorks and the Notebook that it quickly became evident that the school’s inflated test scores had distorted the entire educational program at Comm Tech.

"I don’t think the kids got the supports they needed," Cruz said.

In August 2012, the District installed McCreery as the new principal at Bok, despite the suspect scores. The District was aware that the state had already launched an investigation into possible cheating at Comm Tech during her tenure. This year, she has been making a salary of $142,724.

Lola O’Rourke, meanwhile, is now listed as an administrator in the department of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in the Trenton Public Schools.

A 13-year District veteran, O’Rourke was principal of Locke Elementary in West Philadelphia between 2009-10 and 2011-12. In her first two years at the school, PSSA scores at Locke rose 29 percentage points in reading and 27 points in math.

A state analysis later found evidence of suspicious erasures in student test booklets in both years, however. In 2011, Locke was flagged in both reading and math in grades 4, 5, 6, and 7.

In 2012, after the more stringent test security measures were put in place, Locke’s PSSA scores dropped 42 percentage points in math and 32 points in reading.

In addition to the troubling statistical evidence at Locke, a source familiar with the cheating investigation at the school said the District also received anonymous tips about testing improprieties during O’Rourke’s tenure.

More to come

PDE has filed complaints against some 140 educators from other Pennsylvania districts where cheating was found to have occurred.

Efforts to sanction educators in Philadelphia, though, have proceeded slowly.

Robert McGrogan, the head of the Philadelphia principals’ bargaining unit, said he could not say how many more administrators may have action taken against them. While union members are entitled to union representation at any disciplinary hearings or investigative sessions, the loss of credentials and licenses is ultimatley between the individual and the state, he said.

McGrogan said that he sat in on hearings or sessions for administrators in just about all the schools that had been under investigation.

"This will be far from done," McGrogan said. "I don’t know how many more will be coming, I really don’t know."

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that many of his members had been interviewed by both city and state investigators, but none had been notified of any potential actions against them.

"There’s no excuse for cheating," Jordan said. "However, in the environment of the high-stakes testing going on in this country, unfortunately, people are making some very, very foolish decisions."

The disciplinary actions became known just a day after 35 Atlanta educators, including former superintendent Beverly Hall, surrendered to authorities after being indicted on various criminal charges growing out of what so far has been the biggest cheating scandal in the country.

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.