Pennsylvania Joins the List of States Facing a School Cheating Scandal
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PHILADELPHIA -- In April, Dale Mezzacappa attended a panel discussion on cheating sponsored by the Education Writers Association. At the time, she was one of three staff reporters for The Notebook, a community newspaper and Web site that covers the Philadelphia public schools.
While few know of The Notebook, many know of Ms. Mezzacappa. For 27 years, until the newspaper industry's near collapse, she was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She is also a former president of the Education Writers Association.
People trust Ms. Mezzacappa to get it right. After the panel discussion, an executive for a testing security company suggested she ask state officials if they had done a study flagging schools with suspicious numbers of erasures on state tests. In May, the state responded, sending Ms. Mezzacappa a file so large she needed technical assistance to download it.
For two months, that 2009 study sat unexamined. (Being one-third of the reporting staff, Ms. Mezzacappa doesn't have a ton of free time.) Then last month, The Notebook's editor, Paul Socolar, entered into a partnership with the local public radio station, WHYY, which enabled him to hire a fourth reporter, Benjamin Herold.
Mr. Herold's first day was July 6. On July 8 about 9:30 a.m., Ms. Mezzacappa suggested he look at the enormous state file, and by 11:30 that night The Notebook had posted its biggest scoop. A total of 89 schools -- 28 in Philadelphia -- had been flagged by the state for, among other things, an improbably high number of erasures, as well as questionable gains on reading and math tests.
Mr. Socolar, a data fanatic, calculated that at some of these schools, the odds that the erasures had happened randomly were one in 100 trillion, and Ms. Mezzacappa verified those numbers with Andrew Porter, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
And that is how Pennsylvania became the latest in a growing list of states facing a cheating scandal.
Never before have so many had so much reason to cheat. Students' scores are now used to determine whether teachers and principals are good or bad, whether teachers should get a bonus or be fired, whether a school is a success or failure.
Will Pennsylvania do what it takes to root out cheating? Few school districts have. Most inquiries are led by educators who are not first-rate investigators and have little incentive to make their own districts look bad.
The Pennsylvania investigation is only a few weeks old, far too early to judge. But the first step is not encouraging: State officials have directed school districts and charter schools with suspicious results to investigate themselves.
For places that are serious about exposing cheating, there is a new gold standard: Atlanta. In the bad old days, Atlanta school officials repeatedly investigated themselves and found they had done nothing wrong. Then, last August, the governor decided that, once and for all, he was going to get to the bottom of things, and appointed two former prosecutors to oversee an inquiry.
Sixty of Georgia's finest criminal investigators spent 10 months on it, and in the end turned up a major cheating scandal involving 178 teachers and principals -- 82 of whom confessed -- at 44 Atlanta schools, nearly half the district.
Will Pennsylvania do an Atlanta? It's a big commitment. First, schools with test score gains that seem too good to be true need to be identified. The Philadelphia Inquirer has looked at Roosevelt Middle School, where 63.8 percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading in 2009, compared with 28.9 percent in 2008.
Next, to get a sense of the scope of the cheating -- there are 3,300 schools in Pennsylvania -- a comprehensive erasure analysis is needed. In Atlanta, investigators calculated erasure rates for every teacher in the district.
In Pennsylvania, the 2009 statistical analysis that was unearthed by The Notebook has provided many good leads. Chester Community Charter, one of the state's biggest schools, with 2,700 students, was among those most often flagged for suspicious erasure results. It also was flagged for questionable test scores: in 2009, 65.4 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math, compared with 22 percent the year before. To his credit, the state's secretary of education, Ron Tomalis, has requested two more statistical studies, for 2010 and 2011, to better identify cheating patterns.
Once the questionable schools have been pinpointed, the serious work begins. In Atlanta, the investigators chosen to conduct the cheating inquiry were given the necessary legal tools (subpoena power) and generous resources (over 100 people were involved). Then they went out and worked the schools like police detectives, flipping one cheating teacher, who in turn would identify others.
This was a far cry from the days when the longtime Atlanta superintendent, Beverly L. Hall, repeatedly dismissed cheating allegations because there was no "direct proof" and no one came forward to confess. The Atlanta report, released last month, contains hundreds of pages of "direct proof," and names all 178 teachers and principals accused of cheating, including the 82 who confessed.
The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Notebook have printed accounts of unnamed teachers who said they cheated and saw others cheat. But unnamed won't do it. After Inquirer articles about Roosevelt Middle School, the city investigated. "No one was willing to speak on the record, name individuals, times or locations," said Jamilah Fraser, a district spokeswoman.
Of course, teachers aren't likely to confess to their supervisors, who could turn around and fire them. In Atlanta, teachers were promised that they wouldn't be criminally prosecuted if they told the truth.
Newspaper investigations can point the way, but that won't nail the cheaters. Reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote many articles about suspected cheating, starting in 2001. And for that they were criticized by city leaders for damaging Atlanta's image.
If a cheating investigation is to succeed, there must be a top state official with the political will to make it happen, no matter where the investigation leads. In Atlanta that was Sonny Perdue, then the governor, who told investigators there would be no interference and agreed not to read the report until it was finished.
Mr. Tomalis, the education secretary, says Gov. Tom Corbett "has been adamant about making sure that we make every effort" to respond "aggressively on these issues."
The governor will be tested. Chester Community Charter School, which was heavily flagged in the 2009 study for "aberrant" erasures and test scores, is operated by Vahan Gureghian. Mr. Gureghian was the largest individual contributor to the governor's election campaign last fall, giving more than $300,000.
In April the governor visited Mr. Gureghian's charter, praising it as a model "that needs to be reported to all the people of Pennsylvania," which of course is exactly what Mr. Herold did in his July 21 posting for The Notebook.
E-mail: oneducation @nytimes.com
First Published August 1, 2011 12:00 am