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Standardized test irregularities in Pa. remain under investigation

| Monday, April 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Pennsylvania school officials continue to investigate whether testing irregularities are the result of cheating, the outcome of which could put dozens of educators' certifications in jeopardy.

Test-cheating drew national attention last week with the surrender of 35 Atlanta educators accused under the state's racketeering law of boosting scores to increase their pay.

“Cheating is never acceptable. ... We take that very seriously,” said Michael Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents more than 183,000 educators and support staff.

Pennsylvania cited more than 140 educators for misconduct tied to its investigation into possible cheating on standardized tests used to determine whether schools are complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

All face a review by the Professional Standards & Practices Commission, which could decide to revoke their licenses. An analysis of 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores that revealed irregularities tied to statistically improbable changes in scores, participation and pencil erasures prompted the investigation of 90 schools, including 11 in Western Pennsylvania.

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis later ordered a retroactive analysis of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA scores. The department has not released the results. The PSSA test measures math and reading skills of students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11. Penalties for educators who cheat range from disciplinary action to invalidating test scores.

“It's an enormous pressure cooker,” said Diane Ravitch, who was assistant secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. “Federal law contains mandates to close schools, people could lose their jobs ... and some are making terrible, terrible mistakes.”

Criminal charges appear unlikely here, because teacher pay is not tied to student performance in Pennsylvania. Still, the 140 citations surprised officials.

“That's an alarming number,” said John Pallone, superintendent at the New Kensington-Arnold School District, one of the districts flagged in the analysis.

The district, which made immediate changes in how it administered the test, is part of a pilot project to administer the PSSA electronically.

On Tuesday, the same day the Atlanta educators surrendered to authorities, two Philadelphia principals gave up their administrative credentials in lieu of disciplinary action, the state's Professional Standards & Practices Commission said.

The commission alleged Barbara L. McCreery erased and changed student answers, created an answer key and manipulated student data. Lola Marie O'Rourke allegedly erased and changed student answers, directed others to review secure test documents, gave answers to students and stored test materials in an unsecured location.

In Atlanta, prosecutors accused educators of conspiring to cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistleblowers.

Ethicist Michael Josephson said cheating by teachers and other people in positions of authority has become part of the culture.

“It mirrors student behavior. One half of students admit to cheating on an exam in the last year,” he said. “There have to sanctions that make it clear this won't be tolerated.”

Educators suspected of PSSA cheating can work while the professional commission decides their cases, although the school district makes that decision, Eller said. Both sides can appeal the commission's ruling to Commonwealth Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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