Inquiry continues into cheating on PSSA tests

Pittsburgh, Derry, Monessen among districts in question

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As the state prepares to release the latest math and reading statewide test results, an investigation of cheating on previous tests continues in 10 school districts and charter schools across the state, including Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane said that the state asked the district to look into 19 teachers whose students' answer sheets had atypical erasure patterns.

She declined to name the teachers or the schools and said it is up to the state to clear anyone.

But from her review, she believes most of the situations were explainable and an "extremely small number" remains to be investigated.

An earlier state report named Pittsburgh Sterrett 6-8, but state officials said that was the result of data entry errors, not cheating.

PG graphic: Erasure patterns linked to cheating on state tests
(Click image for larger version)

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said she hopes the number in question falls to zero.

"Our teachers are well-versed in testing procedures. They are monitored very closely," she said.

State officials otherwise declined to comment on Pittsburgh.

The continuing investigation of 10 districts and charter schools involves 2009, 2010 and 2011 results in math and reading on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which is given in grades 3-8 and 11.

The results help to determine whether a school or district makes adequate yearly progress, known as AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The state initially investigated 38 school districts and 10 charter schools, clearing some and finding cheating in some others, including some in Western Pennsylvania.

State Deputy Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq said, "Of the ones from 2009, 2010 and 2011 we are continuing to investigate, there has been some level of misconduct.

PG graphic: State test investigation
(Click image for larger version)

"What we are trying to determine is whether it is student misconduct or whether it has been adult intervention."

Philadelphia has the largest number of schools still under investigation -- 53.

Also still under investigation are four other school districts -- Harrisburg in Dauphin County, Hazleton Area in Luzerne County, Reading in Berks County and Scranton in Lackawanna County -- as well as three charter schools in Philadelphia and one in Delaware County.

"Who really gets hurt by this? The kids really get hurt by this," state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said, noting students and parents don't get a true picture of achievement and needs.

To stem future cheating, the state recommended -- and in some cases mandated -- stricter test security protocols for the 2012 PSSA, which Mr. Tomalis considers the first accurate administration of the test.

He said the 2012 PSSA results -- expected to be released later this month -- will show some small decrease overall in statewide performance because of the security measures and will show decreases of 15 to 25 points over the previous years in some grade levels or schools.

Pittsburgh's preliminary results show student performance dropped for the first time in five years, but district officials gave a variety of reasons, ranging from test security procedures that made students uncomfortable to budget reductions.

Mr. Tomalis said the cheating cases are "minimal relative to the number of public schools; however it's having an impact on the scores of individual schools."

Erasure check

The cheating cases are built around excessive wrong-to-right erasures on the bubble answer sheets students fill in with pencils.

On average, students statewide erase about one time per answer sheet, state officials said.

But at some schools, answer sheets show lots of erasures changing wrong answers to right -- in the more blatant cases, nearly two-thirds of the questions on an answer sheet.

"It's kinda hard to think this is just a normal process that happens in a PSSA classroom," Mr. Tomalis said.

Ms. Dumaresq said the range of misconduct is "everything from a few students who were -- because of a proctor who was not attending well or maybe had too many children -- allowed to copy off each other, to an adult who actually took an answer sheet and changed answers."

Mr. Tomalis noted that the state got the original test booklets out of storage to check some changed math answers. In the test booklet would be a student's scratch work -- showing, for example, the student found that 5+5 = 11.

If the wrong answer was erased and changed to the right one without further scratch work, investigators viewed that as evidence of cheating.

Mr. Tomalis said most of the cases involve more than grade or year, putting the suspicion on employees beyond the individual classroom teacher.

In some cases of cheating, Mr. Tomalis said people in the schools admitted to doing the erasures, saw people in an office late at night erasing or noticed the next day that the answer sheets looked different than when the sheets were turned in.

"It's imperative everyone speaks up when they see something like this," Mr. Tomalis said.

In some school districts, the investigation has ended but the district remains under "continued monitoring."

"The analysis tells us something happened. We're not content to sit back and walk away," Mr. Tomalis said.

This list includes Derry Area and Monessen City, both in Westmoreland County.

In Derry Area, the state identified one grade in the Grandview Intermediate School.

In a letter to Derry Area, the state Department of Education said the district's investigation "identified multiple test administration violations, but no explanation for the cause of the high number of wrong-to-right erasures provided."

The letter indicates the department has "great concern" over the violations and the lack of conclusions about how they occurred.

Derry superintendent David Welling said he didn't want to provide details on the district's internal investigation because it is still active. "From the district perspective, we have not reached full resolution on this matter," Mr. Welling said.

In Monessen, the state identified at least one grade in the district's elementary, middle and senior high schools as having a high number of students with a high number of wrong-to-right erasures.

The district's investigation found no explanation, but the district issued letters of reprimand to test administrators who were identified by the state as having students with high erasure rates.

Linda Marcolini, who inherited the investigation when she took over as Monessen superintendent in January, said she conducted "a full-fledged investigation interviewing everyone," but could find no evidence of cheating or any explanation for the high erasure rates.

But she said she discovered that Monessen teachers didn't receive training in how to administer the test, so she initiated such training.

Ms. Marcolini said she has not been able to study the district's preliminary PSSA data closely enough to determine if there was any drop in scores among the groups targeted by the state.

In both Derry Area and Monessen, any identified test administrator cannot give a statewide assessment to his or her own students or proctor any other students alone.

Some cases closed

Other cases in which cheating was found have been closed because some type of action was taken "sufficient to address the problem," Mr. Tomalis said.

That includes Big Beaver Falls Area in Beaver County and New Kensington-Arnold in Westmoreland County.

At Big Beaver Falls, one teacher received a 10-day unpaid suspension and can no longer administer a statewide test to his or her own students or proctor any other students alone.

This was one of only two personnel actions taken by schools statewide; the other was a 10-day unpaid principal suspension in Berwick Area in Luzerne County.

The state Education Department investigators found one grade at Beaver Falls Middle School had a high number of wrong-to-right erasures.

Big Beaver Falls superintendent Donna Nugent said she was surprised but took the concerns "very seriously."

"One student involved moved from proficient to advanced, but that had no statistical impact," Ms. Nugent said.

As for the 2012 scores, Ms. Nugent couldn't say whether scores dropped significantly in the grade level involved in the cheating probe.

"Across the board in the district, our scores dropped to a level that we are concerned about," she said.

In New Kensington-Arnold, the state Department of Education identified one grade in the Greenwald Elementary School as having a number of students with a high number of wrong-to-right erasures.

According to a letter from the state to the district, the department accepted the district's investigatory report even though it did not result in the discipline of any employees.

However, the department said the test administrator it identified can no longer administer a statewide test to his or her own students or proctor any students alone.

New Kensington-Arnold acting superintendent Thomas Rocchi said the district has changed the way it administers the PSSA so that all students in a grade level take the test together in a large area such as a cafeteria or multipurpose room ,and all teachers are present to administer and proctor the test.

"That removes any suspicion of any individual being alone," Mr. Rocchi said.

Mr. Rocchi said the district's investigation into the erasures found that teachers instructed students to cross out wrong answers as they went along, then after selecting the correct answer, to erase the crossed out answers.

He said there was no drop in scores at Greenwald Elementary as a result of the changes in test administration.

Finding patterns

Mr. Tomalis said the local actions don't necessarily mean educators' certificates will be unaffected. That is up to the state Professional Standards and Practices Commission, which makes cases public only if it takes disciplinary action.

In 2008, an elementary teacher in Valley Grove School District surrendered his teaching certificate in lieu of discipline for having "compromised the integrity of the PSSA test," according to the department's website.

In 2005, the certificate of an elementary teacher in Everett Area School District was suspended for about four months -- most of them in the summer -- for allegedly failing to follow test security requirements.

Mr. Tomalis said that early in his tenure in 2011 he quietly ordered a study of PSSA results.

After a Right to Know request from a Philadelphia publication, it was discovered there was a 2009 report listing 38 school districts and 10 charter schools that had suspicious results for various reasons.

The report, unknown to Mr. Tomalis, had fallen through the cracks when there was a change in administrations.

The report came in during the last week that Shula Nedley was director of the Bureau of Assessment and Accountability at the state Education Department.

"The report doesn't say they cheated. The report says, 'Here're data anomalies.' I handed it off to my replacement and said, 'Here you go.' "

Ms. Nedley, who believes such studies help to protect the integrity of the test, said she had reinstituted forensic data studies of the tests but noted the department had previously done erasure analysis in the 1980s.

The 2009 report cautions against drawing conclusions based solely on the statistics which flagged schools and students with "highly improbable results," saying they don't provide "definitive evidence."

It said, "These flagged or identified schools or students may have earned their scores unfairly. However, they also may have earned them fairly."

After looking at 2010 and 2011 results as well as 2009 to find patterns, the department sent letters to certain school districts and charter schools asking them to explain their results. Some were able to do so.

Those cleared include Gateway, Ambridge Area, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, Connellsville Area, Uniontown Area and Belle Vernon Area.

Discipline or prosecution

In the 2012 PSSA administration, any staff person with custody of the tests had to sign a statement vouching that they won't reveal the contents of the tests to anyone, provide any answers or alter responses.

The statement noted they could face professional discipline and/or criminal prosecution.

The crime would be unsworn falsification to authorities.

The procedures also established a chain of command for test materials, which arrived in a sealed box, were to be returned to the school test coordinator at the end of each day of testing and were to be locked up overnight.

Those administering the test could give words of encouragement and general instructions but could answer student questions only on directions.

The state recommended -- and in some schools required -- that teachers not give the exams to their own students.

In some schools, the state sent personnel to monitor the administration of the exams.

Mr. Tomalis said the state will continue to contract for erasure studies at a cost of about $100,000 a year.

Allegations of cheating on state tests has surfaced elsewhere across the country as a result of erasure studies, including Georgia, New Jersey and Florida.

In Atlanta Public Schools, about 180 educators were named in a state investigation into cheating, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Some of the evidence included excessive erasures.

The newspaper last month summarized 164 of the cases and found that 110 educators resigned or retired, 17 were terminated by a tribunal, 16 were reinstated and 20 had tribunals pending.

Ms. Lane said she discussed the Atlanta allegations with principals a year ago.

"We absolutely want our PSSA results to accurately reflect the achievement of kids," she said. "Nobody wants higher PSSA scores than I do, but first there's only one way we want them."


Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955. Mary Niederberger: or 412-263-1590.


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