Eighth Philly educator charged in standardized test cheating scandal

Philadelphia School District headquarters

Philadelphia School District headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Another Philadelphia educator has been charged in the widespread standardized-test cheating scandal that’s been the subject of continued investigations by Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

In an official release, Kane said Wednesday that a grand jury recommended charges against Lolamarie Davis-O’Rourke, 43, of Williamstown, New Jersey – the former principal at Alain Locke Elementary in West Philadelphia.

The A.G.’s report says Davis-O’Rourke “allegedly created an environment ripe for cheating” from 2009 to 2012 by helping students change answers, directing teachers to help students switch answers, and “changing the locks to a storage room so that only she and the building engineer could access stored test booklets.”

She also changed students’ answers and instructed teachers keep track of student performance to identify so called “bubble students”– those to target in the cheating conspiracy. 

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Arrested Wednesday, Davis-O’Rourke was charged with tampering with public records or information; forgery; tampering with records; and criminal conspiracy.

In the grand jury’s presentment, witnesses including teachers, staffers and parents testified to Davis-O’Rourke’s misconduct, including allegations that she had also engaged in cheating in her prior position as a teacher at Tilden Middle School.

The probe details how Davis-O’Rourke at first denied any wrongdoing, but after pressure from interrogators admitted to actively altering scores and developing a sophisticated system for fudging results in order to improve personal and school-wide standing within the district.

Davis-O’Rourke resigned from the district in August 2012 and forfeited her state credentials in Spring 2013.

This marks the fourth former district principal to be arrested for allegedly changing answers on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). 

A 2011 state forensic analysis found evidence of an improbably high number of wrong-to-right erasures on tests at 89 schools statewide.

Since the state’s initial probe, the investigation has widened to more than 100 schools across 38 school districts in Pennsylvania. So far the fallout has mainly affected educators in Philadelphia, where at least 53 schools have been targeted.

After systemic cheating came to light and test security was tightened, scores dropped precipitously at schools flagged for cheating.

Last May, Kane charged five educators at Cayuga Elementary in Hunting Park, including then-principal Evelyn Cortez.

In September, Kane charged former Communications Technical High School principal Barbara McCreery and former Bok Technical High School principal Arthur “Larry” Melton.

In separate reports, both of those principals said schools were under intense pressure to raise scores following federal, state and district edicts that ramped up accountability measures. McCreery called the expectations “unrealistic.”

Davis-O’Rourke told investigators that her actions resulted from fears that Alain-Locke would be closed or administrators would be fired if scores did not dramatically increase. She also testified that a superior told her that she would not earn tenure unless the school made Adequate Yearly Progress – the benchmark growth assessment of the federal No Child Left Behind law. 

 “I can say that there was extraordinary pressure during that period of time for students to make extraordinary gains,” Robert McGrogan, leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, said in September.

In August of 2010, after the first year of Davis-O’Rourke’s leadership, Locke elementary won a $1.2 million school improvement grant from the state department of education.

A spokesman for the Philadelphia School District commended the attorney general, saying that “there should be severe consequences” for cheating. 

From Kane’s release:

“This type of public corruption in our education system deprives children of opportunities for learning,” Attorney General Kane said. “It undermines educators’ abilities to evaluate progress and set a course for our children’s successes. This Office will continue to hold accountable corrupt school employees who put their own interests ahead of those of students in the classroom.

In addition to elementary students, Davis-O’Rourke also proctored special education students, and arranged for one such student to return to Locke elementary after being transferred out for the sole purpose of taking the PSSA in “a favorable testing environment,” according to the grand jury.

PSSA tests and grades are produced by Data Recognition Corporation (DRC), which flags improbable answer change patterns for the Department of Education. DRC found that in 2011 when Davis-O’Rourke was principal, the probability that erasure patterns occurred naturally for four grades and subjects was less than 1 in 100,000,000, according to the presentment.

The grand jury found that after the district instituted greater monitoring of PSSA testing irregularities, the percentage of students who scored advanced/proficient on the PSSA at Locke elementary dropped dramatically across most grades and subjects.

The case was referred to the Office of Attorney General by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It will be prosecuted in Philadelphia by Senior Deputy Attorney General James Goldsmith and Deputy Attorney General Michelle Laucella of the Criminal Prosecutions Section.

Anyone with information regarding suspected cheating on standardized tests in Pennsylvania is encouraged to call the Office of Attorney General at (610) 631-5987.”

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