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New Kensington-Arnold 'flagged' for test scores

| Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A report raises the possibility that New Kensington-Arnold and 10 other Western Pennsylvania school districts cheated on a state assessment test used to determine whether schools are meeting standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The report — a copy of which the Tribune-Review obtained from the state Department of Education — flagged 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores from New Kensington-Arnold, Ambridge, Big Beaver Falls, Connellsville, Gateway, Monessen, Pittsburgh and Uniontown school districts as well as PA Cyber based in Beaver County, the state's largest cyber charter school. A total of 35 districts and 10 charter schools statewide are listed.

The report does not confirm cheating but finds answer patterns and erasures that make results suspicious.

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

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

Data Recognition Corp. of Minnesota, which creates and scores the PSSA, completed the report in July 2009 during the administration of former Gov. Ed Rendell. Eller said the department didn't become aware of the report until this week. Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, an appointee of new Gov. Tom Corbett, is "concerned" that no one apparently followed up on it, Eller said.

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

Eller said the department's 2010 budget had no money for analysis on that year's PSSA, but Tomalis has ordered it reinstated for this year in light of his push to revamp teacher and principal evaluations.

:Regional school officials said they didn't know the report existed until the Trib contacted them for comment.

New Ken-Arnold reacts

George Batterson, superintendent in the New Kensington-Arnold School District, where irregularities were found in third-grade scores at Fort Crawford Elementary, called the report "distressing."

"We don't have any evidence or suspicions that anything has gone wrong," he said. "We would be happy to cooperate in any kind of investigation."

Bob Pallone, school board president, said he also was unaware of any problems on the district's test scores until the report became public yesterday.

"I would hope our superintendent will cooperate fully with the state, and we'll do the proper investigation," Pallone said. "Once we have all the facts, we'll act accordingly."

Pallone noted the district, including Fort Crawford, made "significant gains" on assessment tests in recent years.

"I hope (the improvements) won't be marred by this," Pallone said.

Fort Crawford was one of just 13 schools in the state to be named a national Blue Ribbon school in 2009 based on the prior year's test scores. There has been no indication the scores from the 2007-08 school year were flagged for irregularities.

Fort Crawford was recognized for a combination of its dramatic improvement from 2006-07 to 2007-08 on the PSSAs and its large percentage of students who come from low-income households. District officials at the time estimated 85 percent of the school's 225 students qualified for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

Although test scores from 2006-07 to 2007-08 jumped more than 20 percentage points in both reading and math, the 2006-07 scores, themselves, were about 20 percentage points lower than the previous year's.

From 2007-08 to 2008-09 — the year the report called suspicious — Fort Crawford's scores actually dipped a few points in both subjects.

District officials many times have praised the elementary schools for good performed on the PSSAs. Although the district has struggled with test scores in the secondary grades, all of New Kensington-Arnold's three lower elementary schools met state benchmarks from 2002-03 through 2009-10, the last year for which test results are available.

In addition to Fort Crawford's national recognition in 2009, Martin Elementary School this past school year was recognized on the state and federal levels for its performance on math tests despite its elevated level of poverty.

The big picture

The announcement of irregularities in Pennsylvania test scores comes on the heels of a cheating scandal that rocked Atlanta Public Schools, where a state report last week documented widespread cheating on the district's annual assessment test. Six high-ranking educators lost their jobs and could face criminal penalties.

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

Eller said the Education Department gets about 10 allegations of cheating on the PSSA annually, which the department follows up.

According to the department's guidelines for test security, in the event of a suspected violation, the department can initiate a formal misconduct investigation, which could 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.

The annual PSSA test measures math and reading skills in students statewide in grades 3 through 8 and 11. Students must meet annual state standards in reading and math in accordance with No Child Left Behind. If certain subgroups of students, such as economically disadvantaged or black students, miss targets, then 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, which hasn't occurred in Pennsylvania.

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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