Cheating: Tell us the truth

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

In 2011, the Notebook obtained a Pennsylvania Department of Education forensic analysis of state test results that found implausible numbers of “wrong-to-right” erasures and irregularities at more than 200 schools statewide, including nearly 100 in Philadelphia. News coverage triggered District and state investigations at many of those schools.

We are still largely in the dark about their findings. Disciplinary action was taken against several dozen educators; some lost their certifications. Eight local educators were indicted. Besides those charges, the state and the District have provided only the sketchiest details – and nothing on lessons learned.

We have a brief report on the District’s investigation of 19 so-called “Tier 2” schools, saying that three schools were exonerated and findings at three others were inconclusive. But we don’t know which schools. Nor do we have any account of what went on at the 13 schools where cheating was confirmed – just that 69 educators were implicated. Unlike the thorough cheating inquiry in Atlanta, no light was shed on systemic practices or the involvement of District leaders.

Individual rights to due process must be honored. But the District and state owe the public a full accounting of what happened. Education officials and school reformers seem to want us to think this was just a mysterious batch of bad apples. In fact, cheating has been a pervasive feature of the high-stakes testing era. Critical decisions, including school closures, have been based on bogus data.

Understanding how badly things ran amok should top the agenda of the District’s new committee on testing. Beyond pursuing cases against individuals, the District or state should convene an independent, diverse truth commission – one that can bring closure to this dark era by fully exploring the cheating and other damage wrought by high-stakes testing.