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5 charged in Philadelphia test-cheating inquiry

| Thursday, May 8, 2014, 10:03 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA — A city principal and four teachers helped young children cheat on standardized tests by changing their answers and reviewing questions beforehand, prosecutors charged as they announced a widespread, ongoing grand jury investigation.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane accused the defendants on Thursday of “perpetuating a culture of cheating” on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests over a five-year period. The grand jury found that after the cheating at their inner-city school stopped in 2012, the percentage of students who scored well on the tests dropped dramatically.

Fifth-grade reading proficiency fell from 50 percent to 16 percent at Cayuga Elementary School, and math proficiency from 62 percent to 22 percent, authorities said.

“Significant pressures existed for the various schools to increase PSSA performance,” the grand jury report said. “When PSSA scores went up, school principals received promotion and accolades. Others avoided demotions and terminations.”

In recent years, test-cheating scandals have broken out in Atlanta, Nevada and other districts across the country, as public officials link scores to school funding and staff bonuses and vow to close schools that underperform. The School District of Philadelphia said on Thursday that more than 30 traditional and charter schools are being investigated over suspicious test scores. Three high school principals were fired this year and other staff disciplined.

Meanwhile, Kane's office is continuing an investigation into cheating in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the state, a spokeswoman said. She would not discuss whether any Western Pennsylvania schools are under review, although 11 districts in the area fell under scrutiny in 2011 for apparent irregularities in their PSSA test results. The state Education Department either closed or cleared most of those districts, including Pittsburgh Public Schools. Derry and Monessen were the subject of continued monitoring.

“I think the problem is very widespread,” said Kane, who declined to estimate the number of schools involved in the probe. “It's concerning to us that the intimidation of teachers and students happened and that good teachers were punished for refusing to break the law.”

The charges arose as teachers face “super-high pressure” over a raft of high-stakes student testing, said Fritz Fekete, field program communications consultant for the western region of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

He would not suggest that pressure might force a worker to break the law, said Fekete, whose employer is the state's largest union for teachers.

“However, human nature is human nature. There may be some individuals who break, essentially, under the pressure,” he said.

The newest indictment focused on Cayuga, in the low-income Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia. Of the school's approximately 450 students, 96 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Principal Evelyn Cortez, 59, was charged along with four teachers: Jennifer Hughes, 59, Lorraine Vicente, 41, Rita Wyszynski, 65, and Ary Sloane, 56.

According to the report, Cayuga teachers were encouraged to bring the exams home to familiarize themselves with the tests, and Cortez reprimanded teachers and students who declined to cheat. When the exams were administered, Cortez allegedly went from room to room, sometimes tapping students' booklets to get them to change answers.

Her lawyer, Marc Neff, called the pressure to raise test scores “systemic.”

The school district said it has taken measures to address the problem.

Cortez, Vicente and Hughes are charged with felony racketeering, records tampering, perjury, forgery and conspiracy. Sloane and Wyszynski are charged with records tampering, forgery and conspiracy. It was not immediately clear if the others have lawyers.

Midland-based Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School follows a strict security protocol to handle its state tests, including a documented “chain of custody” for the paperwork, said CEO Michael Conti. He said state education officials cleared the school after spotting potential irregularities in test results from 2009.

“I think all schools would do well to heed these kinds of stories,” Conti said of the Philadelphia criminal case. “I think it's something that everybody needs to be responsible for.”

Associated Press and Trib Total Media staff writer Adam Smeltz contributed.

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