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Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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PA schools show drop in progress, state chalks it up to cheating crackdown

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Sep 21, 2012 2:04 PM

Thumbnail image for Harrisburg Capitol building with fountainUpdated 3:34 p.m. to include statement by PSEA.

Statewide, student progress in Pennsylvania public schools was down slightly this year, but the Department of Education says for the first time its data isn’t tainted by test results manipulated by teachers.

This year’s test scores reflect a 1.4 percent decline in math and a 1.6 drop in reading, as compared to last year. State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said the data represents a baseline.

“This is the new level that we’re going to measure kids by, because it’s very clear from the data we’ve seen that it’s been elevated, artificially elevated, for the past few years,” said Tomalis.

This year, the state investigated 48 school districts and charter schools after they were flagged for submitting suspicious results on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. PSSAs measure whether public school students are keeping up with federal achievement standards.

The state continues to investigate a handful of school districts and charter schools suspected of tampering with results.

Tomalis said the state will file complaints against more than 100 teachers and administrators for their involvement in falsifying test scores over the past three years.

“If there’s inappropriate behavior happening in Pennsylvania classrooms, we’re going to make sure that that doesn’t continue, and those people will not be in the classroom,” said Tomalis.

Some of those complaints could result in educators losing their teaching certification – a process Tomalis said takes anywhere from six months to a couple years.

About 76 percent of students tested at or above grade level in math. In reading, about 72 percent of students made the mark. About 73 percent of students met or surpassed grade level benchmarks for writing. In science, about 61 percent of students tested at or above grade level (passing scores on science tests are not required for schools to still meet yearly progress standards).

The data shows that about one in four students is below grade level in math and reading – a statistic Tomalis called unacceptable. But it was the performance of certain subgroups that the Secretary finds especially discouraging. The state’s data shows economically disadvantaged students, as well as black and Latino students trailed the statewide average scores in math and reading by 15 to 25 percent.

The state's largest teachers union took issue with the Department of Education's explanation for the drop in student progress.  Pennsylvania State Education Association president Michael Crossey attributed the decline to cuts to the education budget.  

“These unprecedented cuts have forced school districts to increase class sizes, cut programs that work for students, and eliminate tutoring programs that help students who struggle to meet academic goals," said Crossey in a written statement.

The Corbett Administration maintains that state funding for education has increased, although the loss of federal stimulus dollars has left many schools reeling.  Tomalis said education experts told his agency poor progress report can’t be chalked up to budget cuts, if only because one year’s change in budgets would not have an immediate impact after so many past years of increased spending in education.

“I don’t buy that excuse, as – that the reason why the numbers went down were because of budget cuts,” said Tomalis.

Tomalis is calling this latest round of testing data a “reset” on exam results he says have for at least three years been contaminated by cheating. Given that, the state has requested a waiver from the federal government to avoid having to meet yearly achievement standards under the federal No Child Left Behind act. That waiver, Tomalis said was rejected by the Obama Administration.

“We just want to freeze our targets,” said Tomalis. “And they said no, you can’t freeze your targets.”

The crackdown on test-tampering

According to the Department of Education, 48 school districts and charter schools have been flagged for investigation for cheating on tests.

30 of those districts and charters are now in the clear. Three investigations have been closed.

Investigations have been closed in six other districts and charter schools, but they will continue to be under the watchful eye of the state for to ensure all’s on the up-and-up when it’s time to proctor the next PSSAs: Bethlehem Area School District (Northampton County), Chester Community Charter School (Delaware), Delaware Valley S.D. (Pike), Derry Area S.D. (Westmoreland), S.D. of the City of Monessen (Westmoreland), and the S.D. of Lancaster (Lancaster).

Investigations continue in nine districts and charters: Harrisburg City S.D. (Dauphin County), Hazleton Area S.D. (Luzerne), Imhotep Institute Charter High School (Philadelphia), Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter High School (Philadelphia), Pittsburgh S.D. (Allegheny), Reading S.D. (Berks), Scranton S.D. (Lackawanna), S.D. of Philadelphia (Philadelphia), Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partnership Charter School (Philadelphia).

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