So far, 23 educators have been disciplined by the state for test cheating

Three years ago, Pa. officials said 140 educators faced discipline in the investigations launched in 2011. The new administration says it cannot report how many cases are still in process.

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

The state Department of Education (PDE) has provided a list showing that 23 educators statewide have so far been disciplined in connection with adult cheating on the PSSA tests as a result of investigations that started in 2011.

Philadelphia educators make up just over half of those sanctioned, and they have faced the harshest penalties.

Officials will not say how many more cheating cases are still in the pipeline.

While details about the state’s inquiry into cheating are still sparse, PDE has also clarified the process that triggered its ongoing scrutiny of nine Pennsylvania districts where testing irregularities were found. These include two charter schools in this area: Chester Community and Imhotep Institute Charter Schools.

Of the 23 sanctioned educators, 12 were from Philadelphia District schools. One other had worked in Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter School in Center City.

Another, as reported by the Notebook last month, was a nine-year employee of Chester Community Charter School who, state databases show, served as a teacher, testing coordinator, assistant principal, and principal.

Other educators sanctioned were from a variety of districts across the state, including the cities of Erie and Reading. There were a few Philadelphia-area districts involved, including Quakertown and Penn-Delco.

Using state data, the Notebook has assembled a chart detailing the 23 disciplinary cases, their outcomes, and their locations.

Not included on the state’s lists are five criminal cases involving educators that are going to trial in Philadelphia court.

Process can take years

The state disciplinary actions, which can take a long time to wend their way through due process, started showing up in 2013 on the PDE website set up to publicize sanctions taken against educators. That year, state education officials sought additional funds to clear a backlog of 500 cases of teacher misconduct for all reasons.

Since 2013 there have also been several cases of reciprocal sanctions imposed against educators working in Pennsylvania schools for cheating-related offenses committed in other states.

Five PSSA cheating cases with 2015 settlement dates were posted in recent months. The state changed its process in September, requiring that all actions go through the Professional Standards and Practices Commission. Before, PDE could impose a penalty on its own.

Cases involving PSSA cheating make up a tiny fraction of state actions against educators; most are for offenses such as inappropriate contact with students and behavior that resulted in criminal charges.

None are reported publicly until the investigations are complete and the penalties are imposed.

All the Philadelphia educators involved, except for one who received a two-month suspension over the summer, surrendered at least some of their credentials. The two who worked in the local charters had their licenses suspended for multiple years.

Outside of Philadelphia and the two area charters, most of the penalties were far more mild – public reprimands and temporary license suspensions for periods as short as three days.

The statewide cheating probe began after the Notebook and NewsWorks revealed the existence of a forensic analysis of 2009 test results that revealed multiple irregularities, including statistically improbable numbers of wrong-to-right erasures. A statewide investigation was launched.

In 2012, under the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett, a PDE spokesman said that it was pursuing disciplinary actions against 140 educators statewide in connection with the cheating scandal. But the Corbett administration did not provide an update on the status of those complaints before leaving office last winter.

Confidentiality concerns

Current PDE spokesman Nicole Reigelman declined to confirm that number or give any further information about how many other disciplinary actions are in the pipeline.

“The number of complaints that were filed is confidential,” she said, “as the process is confidential, if and until professional discipline is imposed. PDE’s current administration cannot address why prior administrations provided those numbers.”

So there simply is no way of knowing how many more cases involving individual educators may come to light as a result of the state disciplinary process.

State officials say an active investigation of cheating continues only in Philadelphia, which is now entering its fifth year. Nine other districts and charters, including Chester Community Charter, are in what the state calls “open/watch” status, with continued close scrutiny of their testing procedures.

The “open/watch” label could cause confusion because the state also describes the cheating investigations in these nine districts and charters as “closed.”

Reigelman said that the difference between these nine and other districts where the investigation has concluded is the ongoing monitoring.

In an email, Reigelman explained that open/watch status means “An investigation was conducted but the local education agency (LEA) failed to come to any conclusions relating to the high number of students with a high number of wrong-to-right erasures on their tests. PDE then mandated that test administrators could not administer a statewide assessment to their own students or proctor any students alone. Additionally, PDE added the schools to a list of schools to be monitored during future PSSA administrations.”

The districts in open/watch status were also investigated by the state, Reigelman said, “and open/watch letters were issued after PDE’s investigation concluded.”

“In some instances, school entities were permitted to conduct internal investigations after the initial round of interviews at those schools concluded. Results of the internal investigations had to be reported to PDE and those results informed PDE’s determination of whether the school entity received an open/watch letter or a closed letter.”

Besides Chester Community, these seven districts and one charter are also in “open/watch” status:

  • Delaware Valley School District
  • Derry Area School District
  • Harrisburg City School District
  • Lancaster School District
  • Monessen City School District
  • Hazleton Area School District
  • Imhotep Institute Charter School (Philadelphia)
  • Reading School District