State presses criminal charges against five Philadelphia educators in cheating scandal

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Five School District of Philadelphia educators who worked at Cayuga Elementary have been criminally charged in connection to the state’s investigation into widespread cheating in city schools around standardized tests.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced today that school’s former principal, Evelyn Cortez, and four teachers — Jennifer Hughes, Lorraine Vicente, Rita Wyszynski, and Ary Sloane — have been charged with fostering a culture of cheating on the state’s standardized tests, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, over a period of five years.

Sloane has been serving as principal at Bethune Elementary. 

The educators are being charged with a variety of crimes, including tampering with public records and “corrupt organizations, which are felonies, perjury, and criminal conspiracy.

Kane, in an interview with Newsworks, said that she thought the most “egregious” behavior was involving students in the cheating by directing them to answer the questions on scrap paper instead of in their test booklets.

“Dragging these poor kids into it as well as robbing them of an education is reprehensible,” she said.

A 14-page grand jury presentment outlines how the educators, under the direction of Cortez, between the years of 2007 and 2011 changed student answers, provided students with answers, and improperly reviewed PSSA test questions before administering the test. Cortez, the presentment said, did not try to hide her actions.

Evidence and testimony showed that Principal Evelyn Cortez blatantly promoted the PSSA cheating at Cayuga Elementary School during testing. According to the grand jury, students were directed to record test answers on scrap paper instead of test booklets so teachers could check their work, and this directive was also broadcast over the school’s PA system. During testing Cortez allegedly entered classrooms, looked over students shoulders and tapped students’ booklets to indicate they needed to change an answer. One witness testified that Principal Cortez suggested to her that she place her fingers by the correct test answers. In addition, the grand jury found that Cortez publicly reprimanded Cayuga Elementary School teachers who did not engage in PSSA cheating, as well as students who did not want to change their answers or incorrectly answered test questions. Teachers were encouraged to take PSSA tests home with them to familiarize themselves with the tests before proctoring students, according to the presentment.

The presentment says that “significant pressures existed for the various schools to increase PSSA performance” and notes that the District made a show of celebrating the improvements.

It also noted that scores at Cayuga dropped precipitously after PDE put new testing protocols into place in 2012. A 2012 Philadelphia Public School Notebook analysis found that Cayuga was one of 22 Philadelphia schools (including four charters) where the reading or math proficiency rates on the PSSA exam dropped by 30 or more points that year. Proficiency rates dropped by an average of 10 points or more at 101 Philadelphia schools that year.

Grade / Subject % Scoring Advanced / Proficient 2011 % Scoring Advanced / Proficient 2012
Grade 3 math 63.2% 30.4%
Grade 3 reading 60.3% 26.8%
Grade 4 math 77.4% 38.6%
Grade 4 reading 41.5% 18.6%
Grade 5 math 62.0% 22.4%
Grade 5 reading 50.0% 16.3%

 

In the interview, Kane said that Cortez “perpetuated a culture” where teachers were told to “do whatever they had to do” to increase test scores, for which they “got accolades and avoided demotions.”

She said her office began the criminal investigation in May 2013, more than a year after the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Office of Inspector General began a non-criminal probe into 53 schools flagged for statistical irregularities by forensic analyses of test booklets for the years between 2009 and 2011.

Cayuga was among 14 so-called “Tier 1” schools designated for investigation by the state directly based on the severity of the statistical irregularities.

After the arrests, the five were immediately suspended from any duties, said District spokesman Fernando Gallard said. In a statement, he said the District “strongly supported” the attorney general’s action and would continue to cooperate with the criminal investigation.

He noted that the District’s own investigation into 19 “Tier 2” schools has resulted in disciplinary actions being taken against 15 current and former employees.

According to the grand jury, Sloane, who had been at Cayuga since 1993, served as the testing coordinator for a few years up to 2008. She was among several teachers who testified against Cortez.

“Sloane testified that she witnessed Principal Cortez remove completed test booklets from the secure room where they were to be stored,” the presentment says. She testified that two teachers, including Vicente, “would go inside the office with her, and Cortez would shut the door. Sloane further testified that she saw Principal Cortez take a test booklet home for her son, who at that time was in the same grade.”

Another teacher, Barbara Dolt, testified that Cortez told her to lie to investigators about where test booklets were stored and that “the reason for the high number of erasures was because their students erase a lot; in fact, Dolt testified that, by her own observations of her students, they hardly erased at all.”

The report contains testimony from more than a dozen Cayuga staffers, including Sloane and Wyszynski, who either said they participated in, witnessed, or were asked to do something improper.

Cortez, Vicente, and Hughes denied any knowledge of cheating. The presentment notes that Cortez had signed an affidavit in 2011 “attesting that PSSA security protocol was followed at her school.” They were charged with “corrupt organizations,” a first degree felony, and perjury, as well as with tampering with public records, forgery,and criminal conspiracy.

Sloane and Wysynski were charged with tampering with public records, forgery, and criminal conspiracy.

The report also says that for the three years between 2009-2011, Cayuga student test booklets had percentages of wrong-to-right erasures completely out of line with statistical norms. For example, while the average was less than two erasures, 15 percent of 3rd grade booklets had 10 or more, the report said.

Cortez was removed from Cayuga last Friday. Gallard said that she had been temporarily reassigned as “principal on special assignment” to Overbrook High School to “assist the administrative staff” there.

A teacher at Cayuga who did not want to be identified said that Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Logan came to Cayuga on May 1 to interview staff individually. The following day she told staff at a meeting, without going into detail, that “there was enough reason to take swift and decisive action” to remove Cortez.

But it is unclear whether those meetings occurred because the District knew the arrests were imminent or for some other reason relating to Cortez’s job performance.

Carolyn Williams, an assistant principal who had been laid off, has been assigned to Cayuga, Gallard said.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, issued a statement saying that “there is absolutely no excuse for cheating.” But he added: “Solving the cheating problem doesn’t end with simply firing or arresting the guilty parties. We must address the current ‘test and punish’ culture that dominates public education and puts many teachers in the position of fearing for their careers and professional reputations.”

Kane called the investigation into cheating “widespread.”

“Right now it is ongoing in Philadelphia,” she said, but added that as attorney general, she has statewide jurisdiction and that anyone with information about cheating on the PSSAs should contact her office.

Beyond that statement, she declined to share any information about what schools, districts, or charters are under investigation for possible criminal charges.

District sources said that Kane’s office did not warn them ahead of time about this action. They said that they are not sure whether her investigators are limiting the criminal probe to the 14 Tier 1 schools or are also looking into the Tier 2 and Tier 3 schools being investigated by the District.

But Kane said, “We will go anywhere within the boundaries of the state of Pennsylvania to uncover evidence of cheating.”

The Inquirer first quoted teachers alleging cheating at Cayuga in 2012.

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a WHYY/NewsWorks partner in education coverage, contributed reporting to this article.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Cayuga Grand Jury Presentment

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