With rampant allegations of students cheating and teachers ineffectively proctoring students who took the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), officials with the School District of Philadelphia promised to root out the problems — and 2012 test scores across the board for all students have plummeted.
The drops in scores are staggering. Across all grades, math scores plummeted 8.7 percentage points from the last year - 57.8 percent to 49.1 percent - while reading scores fell 7.1 percentage points, from 51.6 percent to 44.5 percent.
Many critics point to a change in the way the tests were administered — such as teachers not giving the test to his or her own main class, and tests needing several signatures for validation — as the reasons for the drop in scores.
School district officials have said they will review the test results to further identify the factors, and education officials all but confirmed the drop in scores resulted from increased test security procedures, including robust test monitoring. Officials also pointed to the overall decrease in school funding, which has led to the district dropping essential programs and caused the elimination of several teacher aide positions.
Only a few short days on the job, new School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite Sr. has already encountered his first crisis.
“The results are clearly disappointing, and they simply remind us of the hard work we have ahead in developing a strong system of schools in Philadelphia and in supporting our students’ learning,” Hite said. “We must continue to focus on the basics that will allow our students to succeed in the classroom and that is to ensure the best possible teaching and learning environments, supporting our teachers and principals, and empowering our parents.”
The law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP has devoted four investigative teams to uncover the root problems that the district says affected roughly a dozen of its schools. The teams will investigate at no charge to the district.
“The investigations into the allegations of testing integrity violations on PSSA exams are of the utmost priority to the school district,” district officials said in a statement released by the district. “The district is continuing to work closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Office of the Inspector General as they finalize their investigations into allegations of testing improprieties in 11 district schools and two charter schools.
“Simultaneously, the school district is continuing to take the lead in the investigations into allegations of testing improprieties in 40 district schools.”
Hite also voiced his displeasure regarding the cheating accusations, and backed any investigations taking place.
“The allegations of cheating that have clouded the PSSA test results are disturbing,” Hite said. “Adult cheating is great disservice to our students. It will not be tolerated, and there is no room in our district for any adult involved in cheating.
“We plan to take aggressive action against any individual found to have committed this type of injustice on our students.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Investigation will also launch its own investigation, PDE Secretary Ron Tomalis said, which will look at the practices of more than 100 teachers allegedly involved in the scheme.
Conversely, Pennsylvania State Education Association President Michael Crossey said the focus should be less on the 100 or so teachers — a fraction of the state’s 130,000 educators — and more on Gov. Tom Corbett’s series of cuts to education funding.
“Who really thinks state government can cut nearly $1 billion from the public schools, cut 14,000 educators, and eliminate programs that work for students,” Crossey said, “without impacting student achievement?"
According to published reports, the schools and districts currently under investigation are: Harrisburg City School District; Hazleton Area School District; Imhotep Institute Charter High School in Philadelphia; Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter High School; Philadelphia School District; Pittsburgh School District; Reading School District; Scranton School District and the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in Philadelphia.
The district expects to wrap up the investigation by the end of the calendar year, and will provide public updates along the way.
In its 2012 PSSA Test Results Summary, the district found that 34.4 percent of its students tested below basic in reading — an increase of 6.9 percent, while 28.9 percent tested below basic in math — an increase of 5.2 percent.
According to the PSSA numbers, 2012 would mark the first year since 2002 that overall scores have fallen, and data shows, that even with these new testing implementations, minority students still lag behind their white counterparts.
Of all African-American students throughout all grades, 41.5 percent of all African-American students tested at the advanced or proficient levels, contrasted by 67.8 percent of white students.
The data also confirmed that at-risk students are severely lagging behind both white and minority students.
Only 16.1 percent of English-language and English as Secondary Language students test at the advanced or proficient level in reading, while 19.1 percent of students with disabilities tested at those levels. Students considered economically disadvantaged fared better comparatively, as 41 percent of those students tested at the advanced or proficient reading level.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.