Pa. test scores drop; state officials blame past cheating

Standardized test scores have dropped across the state – dramatically so in Philadelphia and in those Pennsylvania schools suspected of cheating between 2009 and 2011.

The disappointing results on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams are the product of less cheating and tight new test security measures, according to state Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis.

“This is the first year the department can confidently report that PSSA scores are a true reflection of student achievement and academic progress,” said Tomalis.

He said that even though the state’s probe of possible cheating covers only 2009, 2010, and 2011, it’s “highly probable” that test tampering took place earlier than that.

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“The 2011-12 PSSA scores should be viewed as a reset point for student achievement in Pennsylvania,” said Tomalis.

Statewide, the percent of students scoring proficient or above in math and reading both dropped about one-and-a-half points. Seventy-five percent of students were proficient in math, and 72 percent were proficient in reading.

In Philadelphia, math scores dropped 8.7 percentage points and reading scores dropped 7.1 percentage points.

“These results are clearly disappointing,” said new Superintendent William Hite in a statement. “They simply remind us of the work we have ahead in developing a strong system of schools in Philadelphia an in supporting our students’ learning.”

PSSA exams are administered each spring to students in grades 3-8 and 11. In 2011-12, more than 930,000 Pennsylvania schoolchildren took the exams.

An ongoing investigation

Last July, the Notebook/NewsWorks report reported on a study showing widespread test score irregularities at dozens of Pennsylvania schools in 2009. Shortly after, the Pa. Department of Education (PDE) commissioned an analysis of PSSA results from 2009 to 2011, then launched an investigation into 10 charters and 38 traditional school districts across the state.

Nine districts, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and three charter schools, all in Philadelphia, are still under investigation.

State officials said that 30 districts and charters have been cleared of any wrongdoing. Investigations have been closed in six others, including Chester Community Charter School.

In 2012, Chester Community’s proficiency rates plummeted about 30 points in both math and reading. The declines were fairly uniform across all grade levels and demographic subgroups.

Last month, NewsWorks and the Notebook reported that suspicious patterns of “wrong-to-right” erasures had been found across multiple grades, subjects, and years at the vast majority of the 53 Philadelphia district schools suspected of cheating. Many had been determined by the state to be “lower priority.”

PDE is still investigating 11 of those schools. A district-led investigation of 20 so-called “Tier 2” schools started last May and is expected to conclude by the end of December. The district is also now responsible for investigating 22 “Tier 3” schools that had previously been subjected only to further “analytic review.”

NewsWorks and the Notebook had previously reported sharp declines in the District schools that were under investigation.

At all three city charters still under investigation, proficiency rates dropped dramatically. At Imhotep, they plunged 30 points in reading and 38 points in math. At Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter, they went down 30 points in both subjects at the high school level. At Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Academy, proficiency rates went down 38 points in reading, and 46 points in math among high schoolers, with smaller declines in the lower grades.

State to file complaints about 100+ educators

Tomalis also revealed Friday that the education department has already taken unspecified “personnel actions” against a “small number” of educators who “participated in tampering of student answer sheets.”

The department will also soon file complaints against more than 100 additional educators, he said.

“When a few individuals act inappropriately, everyone, including students, is negatively impacted,” said Tomalis.

Any state efforts to suspend or revoke an educator’s license could take months or even years, said Tomalis. Districts and charters, he noted, are responsible for the employment of individual educators.

PSSA results are used for a variety of accountability purposes, including as a measure of whether schools and districts have met their federally mandated Adequate Yearly Performance (AYP) targets.

All told, just under half of Pennsylvania’s 1,439 charters and traditional public schools met AYP targets in 2012. That number is down dramatically from last year.

In Philadelphia, just 33 schools made AYP in 2011-12, down from 110 last year.

While state officials argued that test score declines were attributable solely to anti-cheating measures, district officials said other factors, including deep cuts in state funding and corresponding cuts to school budgets and support stuff, played a role.

“I don’t buy that excuse,” said Tomalis.




This article was a joint reporting project of WHYY/NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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