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Report on PSSA test results unseen

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The state spent about $183,000 in taxpayer money on a report that revealed possible cheating on a standardized test, but it never made it to the Education secretary's desk.

Gerald Zahorchak, who led the Department of Education when the report analyzed 2009 test results, said on Wednesday that the report's existence was news to him.

"I verified that it never got to my desk with folks in the current hierarchy," said Zahorchak, now superintendent in the Allentown School District.

The department's Bureau of Assessment and Accountability, which investigates allegations of cheating, referred all calls to department spokesman Tim Eller.

Eller confirmed that Zahorchak contacted the department when the report surfaced this week but could not confirm whether anyone in then-Gov. Ed Rendell's administration saw the document.

"That's a question that's still unanswered in the department right now -- to find out who, if anyone, saw this report or knew if it existed," Eller said.

The analysis of the 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests flagged 11 schools in Western Pennsylvania -- among 35 districts and 10 charter schools statewide -- for "irregular" erasures and "improbable" changes in scores and student participation. The state uses the tests to determine whether schools meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Gateway School District officials said Education Department official Jack Horner told them yesterday that no conclusive evidence exists to accuse any district of cheating. The report flagged Moss Side Middle School for irregularities in its fifth- and sixth-grade scores.

Eller said it's too early in the department's review of the report to conclude whether the irregularities were enough to affect the schools' percentage of students meeting standards under No Child Left Behind.

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, an appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett, is giving schools included in the report 30 days to report the results of internal investigations to the department, Eller said.

Thomas Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the state should direct any investigations.

"For the sake of transparency, further investigation into the suspicions should be handled by an objective third party such as (the Education Department) rather than those directly involved," Gentzel wrote in an e-mail.

Data Recognition Corp. of Minnesota, which creates and scores the PSSA, conducted the analysis as part of a three-year, $91 million contract with the state that expired in June. Citing budget restrictions, the state did not pay for an analysis last year, but Eller said it will return in 2011, the first year of a new contract with the company, at a cost of $185,000.

"But there's no money for education?" asked Patricia Seda-Rivera, 68, of Monroeville, a Gateway taxpayer. "I certainly would not approve of them paying money to do that."

State Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks County, chair of the House Education Committee, said periodic reviews should be conducted for cheating so districts don't promote struggling students.

Robert Schaeffer of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which advocates against high-stakes testing, said the organization has noted an increase in the number of reports about cheating on assessment tests as states' targets increase and scores are tied to teacher pay and evaluation.

"In that circumstance, there is a tremendous pressure on educators, including teachers, principals and administrators, to boost scores," Schaeffer said.

Ambridge School District Superintendent Erv Weischedel said in 2008-09, his first year on the job, he made a number of changes to boost test scores.

Six weeks of daily drills helped Ambridge's 11th-graders perform better on the test, which got the school flagged for irregularities, he said.

"It's hurtful," Weischedel said. "It makes us feel like we're being accused of doing something wrong."

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