Cheating allegations at Roosevelt school stir up teachers, parents

Emotions were high for parents and teachers at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in Germantown as they faced the first school day after allegations of test manipulation came to light over the weekend.

Teachers interviewed were split about the allegations in the Sunday Inquirer article.  One said he didn’t believe that the school principal and some teachers conspired to cheat on state PSSA tests, and that the charges were intended to make the school staff look bad. But another teacher said he thought the article was accurate. Neither teacher was willing to be quoted by name.

The Inquirer article cited several Roosevelt teachers who said school leaders encouraged teachers and students to review PSSA test materials days before the test was to be given, in violation of test taking rules. Teachers wrote answers to questions on blackboards and students were seen carrying test booklets prior to the test period, according to the article. 

The teacher who disputed those allegations said he thought the school staff deserved  credit for the progress Roosevelt has made in test scores over the last several years.

“It’s nice to be complimented for when we do something right,” he said. “We were failing for 13 years. It’s nice to be noticed when we actually improve.”

Roosevelt  serves approximately 400 students in grades 7 and 8 from the East Germantown and East Mt. Airy neighborhoods. The PSSA results in dispute applied to both grades.

In two years, Roosevelt’s state test scores have soared. In 2007-2008, a combined 24 percent of Roosevelt students scored at either the advanced or proficient level in math; for English, that number was 28 percent.

In the 2009-2010 school year, those figures soared to 76 percent combined advanced and proficient for math, and 78 percent in reading.

This year’s PSSAs were administered in April; results are released in August.

“I believe everything that was written in the article,” said the second teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. “The district has a reputation,” the teacher said referring to recent firings for whistle-blowers.

Roosevelt Principal Stefanie Ressler, who has been credited for getting the school off of the state’s Persistently Dangerous Schools list this year, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Other school staff members didn’t want to speak on the record this morning. A security guard who would only identify himself as Officer Williams said the school district instructed him not to allow any of the staff members to make a comment, even if approached off of school grounds.

“I was instructed to tell them not to answer,” he said.

Philadelphia School District spokesperson, Shana Kemp, responded to questions about the incident with a written statement.

“The District has a very robust test monitoring system in place,” the statement begins.

The statement said the school district follows up on accusations of test wrongdoing with internal investigations when warranted. Kemp declined to comment on whether such an investigation was active at Roosevelt. She also declined to comment on whether anyone at the school had been instructed to keep staff members from talking about the allegations.   

PSSA test results are directly linked to a school’s status within the district.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s School Performance Index relies heavily on tests scores to determine whether to slate schools for intervention as “turnaround schools.”   At such schools, interventions can include replacing the school’s leadership and staff.

Students’ family members expressed surprise and concern about the allegations, but few agreed to speak on the record.

Cheryl Selby, the grandmother of a Roosevelt student, said she understands that school staff members want good test scores to save their jobs.  She said she found the allegations of cheating deeply troubling, but not totally surprising.

Selby worked as a facilitator for a national standardized test given at Roosevelt two years ago and said her impression of the test taking atmosphere at the school was not a good one.

“I was pretty appalled,” she said, saying the students were loud and disrespectful when they should have been concentrating on the test.

Siomara Crespo, a parent of a Roosevelt student, was saddened to learn about the allegations as she dropped her son off for school this morning.

“That’s something disrespectful because they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing,” she said, speaking through an interpreter.

This story is a product of a news-gathering partnership between the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and NewsWorks.

 

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