Past Chester Community Charter testing head disciplined in cheating scandal

The state's largest bricks-and-mortar charter is operated for profit by a GOP power broker. Its test scores plunged in 2012 when security measures were tightened.

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

A former testing coordinator at Chester Community Charter School, the state’s largest bricks-and-mortar charter with more than 3,000 students, has been sanctioned by the state for “systemic violations of the security of the PSSA exams” over the five-year period between 2007 and 2011.

The school was under scrutiny for testing irregularities by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as part of a statewide cheating scandal that broke in 2011.

CCCS is operated for profit by a company owned by Vahan Gureghian, a major Republican donor and power broker who was among the largest individual contributors to former Gov. Tom Corbett’s campaign and a member of his education transition team. During his term, Corbett visited CCCS to tout it as an exemplar of high-quality education for low-income communities.

Now with three campuses, CCCS has drawn more than half the K-8 students who live in the Chester Upland School District.

The state’s disciplinary action against the former coordinator, Patricia A. Sciamanna, was for violating testing rules during years that CCCS was struggling to meet federal student proficiency targets used for critical decisions, including whether a charter should be renewed.

The Pennsylvania Professional Standards and Practices Commission (PSPC) suspended Sciamanna’s instructional and administrative licenses, as well as her eligibility to work in a charter or cyber charter, for two years.

It also banned her permanently from ever “participating in, proctoring, monitoring and/or overseeing the administration of the PSSAs.” Although the action was taken in April, it was only recently posted on the PSPC website that tracks disciplinary actions against educators.

An effort by the Notebook to reach Sciamanna through her Facebook page was unsuccessful.

CCCS spokesman A. Bruce Crawley issued a statement on the disciplinary action, saying it is against the school’s policy to comment on “issues related to individual staff members.” He did not respond to a request to clarify when Sciamanna started working at the school, when she left, and what positions she held.

The school’s statement reiterated its longstanding position that PDE has made no determination against the school itself in regards to cheating.

“The PDE closed its review of CCCS in September 2012, with no finding of wrongdoing by the school,” the statement said.

That month, a letter from PDE sent to CCCS, however, cited “overwhelming evidence of testing irregularities” and required the school to adopt strict testing protocols.

CCCS is now one of nine districts or charters in the state on an “open watch list,” meaning that its test administration continues to be closely monitored and supervised by PDE.

Test scores at the school plunged under new security measures and have remained relatively low since.

A statewide probe

Although much of the public attention around adult cheating on standardized tests in Pennsylvania has been focused on Philadelphia schools, the statewide investigation launched in 2011 probed suspicious results in 38 districts and 11 charters across Pennsylvania.

One was CCCS.

In July 2011, the Notebook and NewsWorks reported on a state-commissioned analysis showing widespread test score irregularities at dozens of Pennsylvania schools in 2009. In response, the Pennsylvania Department of Education commissioned a further analysis of PSSA results from 2010 to 2011, then launched an investigation into those whose results was most suspicious. CCCS was flagged multiple times for an unusually high number of wrong-to-right erasures on the test booklets.

The investigation went on for more than a year. The September 2012 letter, sent by then-Deputy Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, recounted how PDE initiated the probe “based on the statistical improbability that the students made these erasures themselves.”

But PDE then allowed the school to conduct its own investigation, “which did not yield clear conclusions notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence of testing irregularities,” the letter said.

In February of that year, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, CCCS attorney Francis J. Catania had written to Dumaresq that the school’s investigation “uncovered absolutely no evidence of testing improprieties or irregularities” – instead establishing that “improvements in PSSA test scoring are the direct result of hard work, innovative educational programming and persistent preparation by the students, teachers, administrators and parents at CCCS, and not some purported nefarious conduct or ‘cheating.'”

Catania suggested the erasures were due to test-taking strategies taught to the students.

Nevertheless, after the school reported the inconclusive results, “PDE returned to complete its investigation,” according to Dumaresq’s letter. PDE then spelled out strict testing protocols that the school said it would follow, including 24-hour security cameras where the tests are stored and in all classrooms in which students take them. In addition, PDE sent outside monitors to supervise all test administrations.

Through its history, CCCS struggled to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the test score and performance targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The school made AYP in 2004 but then fell short for four years in a row from 2005 through 2008.

A fifth year of failing to meet targets would have triggered sanctions under NCLB, including a potential change in management.

The scores climbed in 2009, and for three years in a row, through 2011, they were high enough for the school to earn Adequate Yearly Progress status, an indicator that enhanced the school’s credibility in the Chester community. The school’s enrollment saw continued growth.

After the strict test protocols were put in place in 2012, proficiency rates at CCCS plummeted by an average of 30 percentage points in every grade and subject. In letters to parents and the media, the school blamed the drop on budget cuts.

Since then, scores have remained low – similar to scores of some Chester-Upland district schools.

That district has been in dire financial straits for decades, most recently exacerbated by its huge payments to CCCS and two other charters. Due to quirks in the state charter funding formula, the district sends $40,000 for each special education student at a charter, a figure that far outstrips any other in the state and has helped to virtually bankrupt Chester schools.

This fall, when it was unclear whether Chester’s district schools could afford to open their doors, Gov. Wolf sought a rescue plan for the district in which, among other actions, the payments to the charters for special education students would be lowered to $16,000. The charters, including CCCS, agreed to accept a payment of $27,000 per student as part of a compromise plan that was approved by the courts..

Little information on inquiries

Apart from periodic information about individual educators on the Professional Standards and Practices Commission website, the state has provided little information on the findings of its investigations of cheating. Both the state and districts cite confidentiality on personnel matters.

In Pennsylvania, discipline actions against educators are made public by the PSPC once they are final, and they can take years to resolve.

PDE spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said, “The Department takes allegations of educator misconduct seriously. The investigation, negotiation of settlement and/or prosecution of the educator misconduct complaints may require significant time, and there are no mandated timelines for resolving cases. … PDE does not share information regarding investigative findings.”

In 2012, the state Department of Education reported that it was pursuing complaints about PSSA cheating against at least 140 individual educators from schools across the state.

But on the website where it announces disciplinary actions against educators, the state has still only reported a handful of such actions for PSSA cheating, mostly in Philadelphia. And Reigelman did not provide an update on how many such cheating complaints are still outstanding or say whether complaints are pending against other CCCS educators.

The settlement with Sciamanna was the result of a negotiation. The state Department of Education, which brought the complaint in October 2013, had initially sought permanent revocation of her credentials but settled for the two-year suspension.

A review of the state’s website listing disciplinary actions against Pennsylvania educators shows most of those implicated in the cheating scandal in Philadelphia received harsher punishments than did Sciamanna. For example, the five Philadelphia School District teachers identified by the state for disciplinary action in 2014 – Radovan Bratic, Michael Reardon, Phyllis Patselas, Alene Goldstein, and Deborah Edwards Dillard – all had to surrender their teaching certifications.