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Five educators charged in Philadelphia standardized test cheating

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A Philadelphia principal and four of her teachers have been indicted by a grand jury for promoting cheating on standardized tests by changing student answers, providing answers to students and improperly reviewing questions prior to administering the tests.

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According to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the defendants perpetuated a culture of cheating on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests over a five-year period. The grand jury found that after cheating stopped at the inner-city school in 2012, the percentage of students who scored well on the test dropped dramatically – fifth-grade reading proficiency fell from 50% to 16%; math proficiency dropped from 62% to 22%.

“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 and terminations,” the grand jury report said.

The School Reform Commission (SRC), an appointed board that oversees the Philadelphia district, fired three high school principals in January and announced plans to discipline dozens of teachers and administrators following its own cheating probe.

This particular grand jury indictment focused on Cayuga Elementary School in the low-income Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia. Approximately 96% of the school’s 450 children are economically disadvantaged.

According to the report, Cayuga teachers were encouraged to take the exams home to familiarize themselves with the tests, and teachers and students who declined to cheat were reprimanded by the principal, 59-year-old Evelyn Cortez. When the exams were administered, Cortez allegedly went from room to room, sometimes tapping students’ booklets to signal them to change answers.

The Pennsylvania Education Department found irregularities in test answers submitted by Cayuga and other state schools and referred them to Kane’s office, the report said. Cayuga had “an inordinate number of wrong-to -right erasures” across various grades for several years. Nearly half of all third-graders had five or more wrong-to-right erasures and 15% had more than 10.

Cortez and two of her teachers are charged with felony racketeering, records tampering, perjury, forgery and criminal conspiracy. The other two are charged with records tampering, forgery and criminal conspiracy.

“Cheating robs children of a good education and hurts kids and families,” Kane said in a statement. “The alleged misconduct by these educators is an affront to the public’s trust and will not be tolerated.”

As a former secondary and elementary administrator, I could not agree more. Given the proper opportunity, all students can learn. Cheating shows a gross lack of confidence in a teacher’s ability to teach and a student’s ability to learn.

There is much that remains to be done to ensure that students from disadvantaged homes are provided a quality education as that education will become the firm foundation for breaking the cycle of poverty for that child.

Cheating has no place in the world of education – particularly if it is being perpetrated by the adults who are supposed to be setting the example for the children under their care.

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