By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — More than 100 Pennsylvania educators could be on the hook for losing their state certifications as fallout from a statewide cheating scandal.
Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said recently the state will soon take disciplinary actions against “easily over 100” teachers and administrators who are suspected of changing answers on statewide tests.
The announcement comes after a yearlong investigation of dozens of school districts statewide.
Once state officials took notice and started acting, they found state test scores dropped.
In mid-2011, a Right-to-Know request unearthed a 2009 report from the state’s test vendor that showed irregular test score gains on the multiple-choice format Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, administered to students in grades 3-11.
The report triggered a statewide investigation. Analysts looked at erasure marks on answer sheets and student notes on test booklets to determine if teachers changed answers from wrong to right, or filled in answers for skipped questions.
The state ended up questioning 48 schools, most of which were cleared of any wrongdoing. In other cases, teachers and even administrators are suspected of tampering with answer sheets.
“This really doesn’t cheat the adults in the public education system, but it really cheats the students,” Tomalis said. “If an adult in our public school system went and manipulated that data, then the parent getting that information back home would then be told that their student was performing better on an individual basis.”
While the state has no capacity to authorize a teacher’s firing, a certification is required for public school employment – and there is a system in place to make that happen.
In the coming weeks, Tomalis said, the state will file complaints against the individuals in question. Based on the nature of the case, the complaint could go before the Professional Standards and Practice Commission, a 13-member board of educators and officials. If the complaint is considered egregious enough, the commission has the power to revoke the individual’s state certification.
Confidentiality laws prevent the state from revealing where the complaints are filed until the end of that process, Tomalis said.
And while 30 districts the state investigated were cleared of any wrongdoing, the rest span the state.
Nine school districts are still being investigated in connection with the report – including the School District of Philadelphia, city districts in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Scranton, Reading and Hazelton, and three Philadelphia County charter schools.
Six school districts are no longer being investigated, though the department is still monitoring them for testing irregularities at schools in Westmoreland, Northampton, Pike, Lancaster and Delaware counties.
Tomalis says the 2011-2012 PSSA test scores, released Friday, are the “reset button” for Pennsylvania testing. Overall, scores went down, and the majority of public schools aren’t meeting nationally set standards from the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Scores dropped because new security measures were implemented, Tomalis said, so the figures show student achievement without inflation.
Proficiency ratings went down in math, reading and writing, but went up by half a percentage point in science.
Overall, 75.7 percent of Pennsylvania students are at least proficient in math, 71.9 percent are proficient in reading and 73.2 percent in writing. That means around 1 in 4 children are behind grade level in those subject areas.
Broken down by grade level, all grades failed to reach the nationally set target of 81 percent of students at least proficient in reading. Grade three, four and seven met the 78 percent proficiency target in math, while all others did not.
The national standards governed by No Child Left Behind increase year to year. Last year, those targets were 72 percent for reading and 67 percent for math.
Mike Crossey, president of Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said in a statement it’s important to remember that the cheating allegations apply to a minuscule number of teachers – around 100 out of 130,000.
That’s not enough to blame the drop in test scores, he said. Rather, it’s the result of state budgets.
“Focusing on an investigation in a small number of classrooms in a small number of schools instead of acknowledging the impact of nearly $1 billion in funding cuts to all schools is a disservice to students, teachers, parents and taxpayers,” said Crossey’s statement.
Despite the back-to-square one attitude displayed by Tomalis, the testing landscape is only going to see more changes.
Nationwide, tests like PSSA are going to be revamped and made more challenging as states implement new Common Core standards, said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at the education analysis center at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.
When the changes come, expect to see even more significant drops in scores, he said.
“I think what you’re going to see is more rigorous standards, but a lot better tests,” he said. “And we’re going to see computer-based tests that will lead to challenges in terms of security.”
Petrilli also said Pennsylvania wasn’t unique in the erasure-mark security scandal, as similar incidents have occurred in other parts of the country.
“People will blame the tests and the accountability system, but that’s like blaming the IRS for tax cheats,” he said. “It’s wrong, and we should be clear that cheating is wrong.”