Cheating in the Keystone State

Michael Winerip is on a roll. After a good piece of reporting on the Atlanta cheating scandal a couple of weeks ago, he has turned in a solid story about the testing mess rolling into Pennsylvania.  As Winerip notes, the Pennsylvania scandal came to light on July 8, when The Notebook, a small Philadelphia-based education newspaper, reported that some 60 schools in the state, including 22 in the City of Brotherly Love had unusually high test erasure marks, a sign of test tampering.  Winerip says it is 89 schools, with 28 in Philly, but the eye-popping story here is that the Pennsylvania Department of Education had actually commissioned the study which was the basis of the July 8 story. It received the report in July of 2009,  and, it would appear,  sat on it until The Notebook was tipped off about it.  That’s the scandal here.

And Winerip suggests that PDE’s initial response to the latest news “is not encouraging:

State officials have directed school districts and charter schools with suspicious results to investigate themselves.

This, of course, is another startling reminder of the inability of the system to police itself.  As Winerip points out, it took years of dogged reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the state took the charges seriously.

But these cheating scandals appear to be the tip of a rather large iceberg, one which suggests (if I may change metaphors) that the line between bureaucratic indolence and criminality is indeed blurry.  Last fall, for instance, Winerip’s colleague Sharon Otterman reported that

[E]vidence had been mounting for some time that the [New York] state’s tests, which have formed the basis of almost every school reform effort of the past decade, had serious flaws.

And in February Otterman again wrote,

State and city education officials have known for years that graduating from a public high school does not indicate that a student is ready for college, and have been slowly moving to raise standards. But the political will to acknowledge openly the chasm between graduation requirements and college or job needs is new….

There is a difference, of course, between changing test scores and sitting on information that the tests had “serious flaws.”  But not much of one. I for one am not so sure that the latter doesn’t carry some serious malpractice implications, especially as the testing stakes increase.  As Winerip correctly observes,

Never before have so many had so much reason to cheat. Students’ scores are now used to determine whether teachers and principals are good or bad, whether teachers should get a bonus or be fired, whether a school is a success or failure.

The greater the stakes, the greater the responsibility of educators, at all levels, to ensure the integrity of the system.  Georgia finally got it right when the governor assigned “sixty of Georgia’s finest criminal investigators” to the case, as Winerip reported.  It is a shame that Pennsylvania’s Department of Education apparently did nothing with its July 2009 report on school cheating.  And they only dig the hole deeper, in the face of evidence of systemic malfeasance, by asking that schools investigate themselves.  Pennsylvania must follow Georgia’s lead if it is to restore credibility to its public education system.

–Peter Meyer

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