Early in the morning, before anyone else arrived, former Communications Technical High School principal Barbara McCreery would sit in her office and redo some of her students’ standardized test booklets – 15 at a time, she admits, with an answer key in hand.
McCreery details that routine in a grand jury report released this week by Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, as she and former Bok Technical High School principal Arthur “Larry” Melton were arrested on charges of forgery and tampering with public records.
Bok and Comm Tech are among 11 tier one schools (most egregious evidence of wrongdoing) under state investigation. A 2011 state forensic analysis found evidence of an improbably high number of wrong-to-right erasures on tests at 89 schools statewide.
In separate reports, both 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.”
Schools that didn’t meet testing goals would be in danger of closure.
“I can say that there was extraordinary pressure during that period of time for students to make extraordinary gains,” said Robert McGrogan, leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators.
McGrogan says those pressures have lessened over the years, but points out that during the budget crisis, principals now face a new set of impossible demands.
“We are still filling in throughout the school as the counselor, as the nurse, as the lunchroom monitor, and the education effectiveness measures are all about the highest quality instruction going on in the classroom,” he said. “I would imagine that teachers are not being observed very frequently during lunch periods in any school across the city.”
Attorneys for McCreery, 61, and Melton, 70, could not be reached for comment. Both principals had previously surrendered their credentials.
“It’s unfortunate to see educators arrested for manipulating test scores, but there are consequences to cheating students out of their education,” said Philadelphia school district spokesman Fernando Gallard in a telephone interview.
Since the state’s initial probe in 2011, 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 flagged. Including McCreery and Melton, seven Philadelphia educators have been criminally charged.
After systemic cheating came to light, and test security was tightened, scores dropped precipitously at schools flagged for cheating.
Stricter testing measures ensure that “results reflect actual student work,” wrote Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania department of education, in an email.
“The security of the state assessments is critical since they are used to determine a student’s academic progress thereby providing information to schools on areas where students may need additional academic support,” he wrote.
In May, the test cheating scandal rocked Cayuga Elementary in Hunting Park, as Kane charged five educators, including then-principal Evelyn Cortez, with criminal counts. Trial dates in those cases have not yet been set.
In an interview following the Cayuga charges, Kane said evidence of cheating was widespread across the commonwealth. “We will go anywhere within the boundaries of the state of Pennsylvania to uncover evidence,” she said.
This week, the state released last year’s standardized test results. The Philadelphia School District’s scores, compared with the year before, essentially flatlined.