The allegations of cheating on standardized tests at schools in Philadelphia and in other districts across the state raise serious red flags that need to be fully examined. Some probes have been launched. But are the investigations real or a whitewash? So far, it appears Philadelphia School District officials would rather sweep the problem under the rug. How far the state will push its probe is unclear.
It’s easy to see why Philly school officials are eager to avoid any more scandal. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman seems headed for the exit after a series of major mishaps, including her mishandling of the South Philadelphia High School riots; the awarding of dubious no-bid contracts; and her big spending through the recession that contributed to a $629 million deficit and subsequent property tax hike.
Ackerman’s credibility is shot. Her political support is hanging by a thread. The last thing the superintendent needs on her resume is a test-cheating scandal. If widespread cheating is proven, it could undermine the meager gains in test scores that Ackerman and Mayor Nutter have touted. (Not to mention, any hints of cheating during last spring’s budget process would’ve hurt Nutter’s effort to increase taxes for the schools, and hamper any current efforts by Ackerman to negotiate a potential lucrative buyout package.)
That may explain why the district has been slow to act when the cheating allegations arose. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in the spring that increases in test scores at some schools appeared too good to be true. At Roosevelt Middle School, for example, reading and math scores each jumped more than 50 points in one year. The paper quoted unidentified teachers claiming that test answers were written on a blackboard and kids were coached during the tests.
The school district launched an internal investigation and quickly concluded last month the cheating allegations were unfounded. A spokeswoman called the school district’s test monitoring system “robust.” No surprise. Asking Ackerman’s minions to conduct an internal investigation into cheating is akin to asking Bernie Madoff’s traders to investigate the outsized returns on his investments.
Then the Notebook, a website that covers Philly public schools, reported that a state study showed 89 schools across the state, including 28 in the city, had been flagged for questionable gains on test scores. The study showed, among other things, an extraordinarily high number of erasures on tests. A teacher who admitted participating in the scheme told the Notebook that cheating was rampant.
More troubling, the state study was done in 2009 but never made public. Why did the state sit on the information? Former Gov. Rendell steered hundreds of millions of dollars in increased funding into the public schools, including Philadelphia. Did his administration bury the study so as not to leave a giant asterisk next to the gains Rendell was trumpeting as a result of the funding hikes?
Gov. Corbett’s new education secretary, Ronald Tomalis, has ordered a forensic analysis of all exams since 2009. Perhaps the change in administration will ensure a thorough review. Don’t hold your breath. One of the schools flagged in the 2009 study is the Chester Community Charter School, which is run by Vahan Gureghian. He happens to be one of Corbett’s largest campaign contributors, giving more than $300,000 last fall.
Corbett has said little about the cheating allegations. As a former prosecutor, he must take steps to ensure any investigation is full, fair and follows the truth wherever it leads. Fortunately, Corbett has a roadmap. Atlanta has been engulfed in a similar school test-cheating scandal. School officials there launched internal investigations that found no wrongdoing, despite reports of cheating unearthed by reporters as early as 2001.
The governor of Georgia finally appointed two former prosecutors last August to get to the bottom of the allegations. They brought in dozens of independent investigators who after 10 months found widespread cheating involving nearly 200 teachers and principals at half of the Atlanta schools.
A similar probe is needed in Pennsylvania. Billions in taxpayer money is spent on public education across the state, including $3 billion in Philadelphia last year. At the very least, the public has a right to know whether school officials are teaching kids how to cheat.
Paul Davies spent 25 years in the newspaper business, including stops at the Daily News, the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.