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Report on PSSA scores raises possibility of cheating

| Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pennsylvania officials are reviewing a report that flags irregularities in test results from 11 Western Pennsylvania schools, pointing to possible cheating on a state assessment test.

"It raises potential concerns," state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said on Tuesday. "It doesn't say, 'You're guilty.' It's a tool to use to ensure the integrity of the PSSA."

Schools in the Ambridge, Big Beaver Falls, Connellsville, Gateway, Monessen, New Kensington-Arnold, Pittsburgh and Uniontown districts appear in the report, as does PA Cyber based in Beaver County, the state's largest cyber charter school. In all, the report flagged 35 districts and 10 charter schools in state tests from 2009.

The report comes out a week after six high-ranking educators in Atlanta lost their jobs in connection with a state report that revealed educators fudged results going back to 2001.

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis directed that all districts get copies of the Pennsylvania report and will request that they investigate the findings and report back to the department, Eller said.

"We don't have any evidence or suspicions that anything has gone wrong," said George Batterson, superintendent in the New Kensington-Arnold School District, where irregularities surfaced in third-grade scores at Fort Crawford Elementary. "We would be happy to cooperate in any kind of investigation."

Eller couldn't say what repercussions districts would face if officials confirm cheating occurred.

The report analyzes scores and participation on the 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test, which officials use to determine whether schools are meeting standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Data Recognition Corp. of Minnesota, which creates the PSSA, completed the report in July of that year, but its contents did not become public until this week.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell's administration conducted the report. Eller said the department didn't become aware of the report until this week, and that Tomalis, an appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett, is concerned that apparently no one followed up on it.

Former Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak, now superintendent in the Allentown School District, couldn't be reached for comment.

The report finds answer patterns and erasures that make results suspicious. Eller said the department's 2010 budget had no money for analysis of that year's PSSA. Tomalis ordered it reinstated for this year in light of his push to revamp teacher and principal evaluations.

In Western Pennsylvania, the report found "improbable" changes in the percentage of students who scored at or above state standards for reading and math; higher than normal subgroup participation; or a high number of answers erased from wrong to right.

Students still take the tests with pencils. Teachers collect the tests and administrators send them to Data Recognition Corp., which scores the tests.

School officials said they didn't know the report existed until the Tribune-Review contacted them for comment.

The report doesn't detail Pittsburgh Public Schools' irregularity, but spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the state told the district that Sterrett Classical Academy in Point Breeze showed a 27 percent jump in participation by economically disadvantaged students.

A spokesman for PA Cyber said the state told the school it had a higher-than-expected number of students in certain subgroups taking the test. Enrollment growth caused the uptick, spokesman Fred Miller said. A small number of students also performed better than statistically predicted, he said.

The annual PSSA measures math and reading skills in students in grades 3 through 8 and 11. Students must meet standards in reading and math in accordance with No Child Left Behind. If certain groups of students, such as economically disadvantaged or black students, miss targets, a district risks not meeting standards.

Schools that don't make adequate progress are first given a warning, and repeat offenders face increasing penalties. The harshest is state takeover, but that hasn't occurred in Pennsylvania.

Eller said the Education Department gets about 10 allegations of cheating on the PSSA annually.

According to the department's guidelines for test security, violations can result in disciplinary action ranging from reprimand to revocation of a teaching certificate. Other consequences include invalidation of all test scores involved in the investigation, or retesting of students.

In March 2005, a teacher from Uniontown surrendered her certification to avoid disciplinary action after district officials accused her of providing answers for the reading section of the previous year's PSSA.

Ben Franklin Elementary in Uniontown is included in the report. Officials did not return calls for comment.

Cynthia Chelen, superintendent in the Monessen School District, attributed Monessen Elementary School's irregularities to the fickle minds of young children.

"If you ever watched an elementary student, sometimes they change their answers three or four times," she said.

Superintendents in Connellsville and Big Beaver Falls said they saw no evidence of problems. No one in the Gateway School District could be reached for comment.

Additional Information:

Atlanta official linked to scandal quits school post

ATLANTA -- A spokesman for Atlanta schools says one of the district's top administrators implicated by state investigators in a test cheating scandal has resigned.

Schools spokesman Keith Bromery says human resources chief Millicent Few resigned on Monday night. State investigators say Few illegally ordered the destruction or alteration of documents to downplay reports of cheating in the 50,000-student district.

Investigators say Few denied the allegations against her. A listed phone number could not be found for Few.

She is among 178 Atlanta schools educators named in a voluminous state report who are accused of either cheating or allowing cheating. The probe found cheating in nearly half of the district's 100 schools since 2001, affecting tens of thousands of children.

-- wire reports

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