Philadelphia Cheating Scandal Just One of Many

Published May 30, 2014

PHILADELPHIA — As the stakes get higher for testing performance with federal and state mandates, a systemic culture of cheating is growing, both in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

In May, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed criminal charges against four teachers and the principal of Cayuga Elementary School in Philadelphia for forcing children and other educators to cheat on state standardized tests.

It’s hardly an isolated incident. Between 2010 and 2012, 33 states confirmed at least one instance of cheating.

Atlanta was embroiled in a cheating scandal involving hundreds of teachers and administrators in 2009. After independent probes by two governors, the former superintendent and 34 educators were indicted. Washington, D.C., is under investigation now for cheating during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor of the school system there.

In the latter case, test scores were linked to teacher compensation.

‘Widespread Problem’
“It’s a much more widespread problem than Atlanta or Philadelphia,” said Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.

And it’s not just irregular erasures or unauthorized handling of testing material that makes cheating on standardized assessments such a problem. How the scores are reported can be misleading as well.

“There are people playing with numbers from every angle when we look at testing data,” said Kerwin.

The current scandal in Philadelphia pertains to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. These tests are administered to elementary and high school students to track the achievement of schools.

According to the findings of a grand jury investigation, “Significant pressures existed for the various schools to increase PSSA performance. When PSSA scores went up, school principals received promotions and accolades. Others avoided demotions or terminations.”

The principal at Cayuga Elementary, Evelyn Cortez, allegedly encouraged cheating for several years, even going so far, witnesses say, as to change student answers herself.

Response to High Expectations
When two teachers provided letters of complaint to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers about what was going on at Cayuga, they were told Cortez would not be informed, but that the complaint would be forwarded to school district authorities. However, the teachers, Angelee Rivera and Katty Fernandez, soon found the principal began treating them negatively, despite the union’s assurances. They left the school after only one year.

“It’s important that we set high expectations. The problem is with low quality educators or administrators who aren’t up to par. There are these tenure policies that keep poor performers in the classroom for a long time,” Kerwin said.

Pennsylvania uses the “last in, first out” rule when it comes to hiring, firing, and reassigning teachers.

The School Reform Commission in Philadelphia recently used its unique authority to suspend seniority provisions for staffing decisions. 

“Making teacher performance a priority is what is necessary especially in a state like Pennsylvania,” Kerwin said.

Maura Pennington ([email protected]) is a Pennsylvania reporter for Article reprinted with permission. Image by Jared Stein.