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Pennsylvania Teacher Cheating Investigation Proceeds To State Level

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Pennsylvania is one step closer to finding out just how much teacher cheating occurred on its 2009 standardized tests as cities nationwide try to make sense of the phenomenon.

On Monday, the state reported that it had received 83 percent of districts' internal probes into schools suspected of cheating. The Pennsylvania Department of Education is now conducting its own analysis of the data and earlier forensic reviews to assess which schools had teachers who were cheating. The continuing investigation comes in response to the release of a report that flagged 90 Pennsylvania schools for testing irregularities -- whether by statistically suspicious score gains or a high number of answers erased from wrong to right -- on 2009 exams.

"The school districts addressed the flags in schools they were flagged for and basically said this is why we believe it isn't indicative of the problem," Timothy Eller, a PDE spokesperson, told The Huffington Post.

In Philadelphia, 28 schools were initially flagged. Philadelphia's internal analysis found no hard proof of cheating. The district concluded that 13 of 28 schools flagged for testing irregularities warranted further investigation with the state's help, according to Shana Kemp, a spokesperson for the school district.

"The way DRC's report flags schools make them look strange, but it's really not," Kemp said of the testing company that issued the forensic analysis. "Students tend to have more erasures in schools where there's a population of students that have not done well on testing. Low-performing students tend to erase more."

State officials say that many of the flagged schools will probably be cleared eventually. A high percentage of erasures is not a conclusive indicator of cheating. In the past, school districts have apologized to schools cleared of cheating accusations after its scores had been canceled because of an erasure analysis.

"Most of the schools -- or a good number of the schools -- where they were flagged one time in one grade did not repeatedly show up throughout the report, had reasonable explanations of why they were flagged," Eller said. "It could be anything from changing a curriculum or a shift in the population of the students that could have brought a flag on for the district."

While this may be the case, there has recently been an uptick in the number of reported cheating cases across the country, a fact that has not been lost on critics of education policies that increasingly take high-stakes test results into account when determining school funding and teacher evaluations.

Shortly after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) released an explosive report detailing widespread teacher cheating in Atlanta's public schools, the blog Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook published a forensic report -- compiled two years ago -- that the state conducted on its 2009 standardized test scores.

That report flagged 89 schools statewide with suspicious gains or erasure marks on standardized exams. "The odds that the wrong-to-right erasure patterns that showed up on Roosevelt [Middle School]'s 7th grade reading response sheets occurred purely by chance were slightly less than 1 in 100 trillion," the blog reported.

Eller said his office only became aware of the report after the blog had requested it. "We're now at the first stage of an investigation process," he said. "We're having the districts named look into it and explain it to the department within 30 days. The reports that come back will be reviewed by the DOE." Eller added that Pennsylvania teachers fired for cheating lose their teaching certification.

The federal government has noticed the spate of cheating cases. "Folks are really paying attention to this," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan previously told The Huffington Post in response to the Atlanta and Pennsylvania revelations. "There's a greater awareness of the issues and trying to do things the right way. We put out guidance to states on this. You've got to take the state tests very seriously. You can't cheat children. You can't hurt children. That's exactly what you're doing."

Philadelphia's school officials said they were not aware of the report until the Notebook published its findings in July.

In all 13 of its schools flagged for both erasure and performance, Philadelphia found that analysis of performance at the grade level had "an insufficient amount of data to explain aberrance of data flagged in the forensic report," according to a slideshow prepared by the district.

Both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania are not releasing the names of schools that have been deemed as needing a deeper probe. While this prevents the stigmatizing of schools based on unconfirmed facts, it also leaves, for now, a black mark on schools flagged for cheating where teachers may have, in fact, been innocent.

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