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More teachers tell of cheating at Philadelphia's Cayuga school

Cheating at Cayuga Elementary School may date back to at least the 2007-08 school year, when, a teacher said, principal Evelyn Cortez directed teachers administering state achievement tests to "go through and make sure no questions are left blank."

Principal Evelyn Cortez has denied wrongdoing.
Principal Evelyn Cortez has denied wrongdoing.Read more

Cheating at Cayuga Elementary School may date back to at least the 2007-08 school year, when, a teacher said, principal Evelyn Cortez directed teachers administering state achievement tests to "go through and make sure no questions are left blank."

"I just sat there and didn't touch the test," said the teacher, one of a number of staff members at the Hunting Park school who have come forward in recent days, as a state investigation of cheating escalates. "Other people were talking and said, 'We're going to come in on Saturday to fix these.' "

Cayuga, sources said, is one of 52 schools in the city now being investigated as part of the broadening state inquiry into possible improprieties on the 2009, 2010, and 2011 state achievement tests, known as PSSAs.

During the last few weeks, investigators from the state Inspector General's Office have spent several days at a number of city schools, including Cayuga, where scores began climbing in 2008. They have been interviewing staffers for as long as 90 minutes each on what they have seen over the last several years.

Cortez also has been interviewed, sources said. She denied allegations of cheating in a brief interview with The Inquirer last month.

Earlier, the Philadelphia School District had said that 13 schools were under investigation based on results from the 2009 PSSAs.

Prompted by the teachers who have come forward to The Inquirer, the district has said it also will investigate at Cayuga.

With the 2012 PSSAs looming, the state recently told Philadelphia and three area charter schools - Chester Community Charter, Imhotep Charter, and Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter - to tighten their testing procedures.

Teachers are now prohibited from administering the exams to their own students, a major shift in policy. In addition, testing materials will be tightly controlled - handed out just before the exam, and collected immediately afterward.

Philadelphia and the three charters can also expect state monitors to be observing during the testing, the state said.

The Inquirer first reported on allegations of cheating at Cayuga in a story last month in which current and former staffers, parents, and even a student spoke of widespread testing irregularities. In other stories last year, teachers described pervasive cheating at another school now under state investigation, Roosevelt Middle School in East Germantown.

In recent days, more Cayuga teachers have come forward with details of test improprieties at the school as far back as 2008. All asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

One teacher described being told by Cortez that students had to reach the 90th percentile or above in a district benchmark test.

"She was implying that she wanted me to help them. I said: 'I can't help them. That goes against everything I believe in,' " the teacher said.

The teacher did not help the students, and the scores were not as high as Cortez wanted. The principal took no chances when it was time to administer the PSSAs in March 2008, teachers said.

Angered by such incidents, several teachers said a group of them wrote a letter telling district officials about the cheating they had seen.

They said they submitted it to a teachers' union official and were told it would be given to district officials, the teacher said.

No inquiry was ever conducted. Both the district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said they had no record of a complaint in 2008.

The teacher said Cortez seemed to know about the letter and targeted those who wrote it.

"We felt like she knew who signed it, and then she was after us. She would just sit in my classroom, and I had no support," the teacher said.

The teacher left after that year. So did several others.

"There was incredible turnover," said another teacher, who also said cheating took place. "She [Cortez] was ruthless. We all left."

Others have told The Inquirer the cheating continued after that year.

After receiving a tip about the possible improprieties at Cayuga, the school district did conduct an investigation at the school in 2011. It concluded the allegations were "unsubstantiated."

The district also conducted an investigation at Roosevelt last year, with the finding of "unfounded." A short time later, a state-commissioned analysis of the 2009 PSSA surfaced, identifying a suspicious pattern of erasures. The odds against the changes occurring naturally were infinitesimal, far more remote than winning the Powerball lottery.

The 2009 analysis prompted the state to launch its investigation of suspicious results in Philadelphia and other districts and charters across the state.

The state also commissioned similar analyses of the PSSA for 2010 and 2011. While those results haven't been released, they were the basis for the broadened investigation that has spread to 52 Philadelphia schools.

At Cayuga, one teacher said that Cortez "could be really blatant about what she expected." The teacher, who taught multiple grades over several years at the school, once administered PSSAs to a group of recent immigrants who could not yet read English. The test was given in English and the students handed their books back quickly, and mostly blank.

Cortez saw what was happening, the teacher said, and ordered the teacher to give the tests back and read the questions to students, a violation of state rules. The teacher refused, so Cortez sent someone else in to do it, the teacher said.

"They did the whole test over in Spanish," the teacher said. Some parts of the math test are permitted to be translated into Spanish, but none of the reading sections; the person sent in read reading sections.

"I was in shock - I felt like what she was doing was wrong, but then I went into another room, and they were doing it there, too," the teacher said. "I heard teachers say things like, 'I have no other choice.' She would make your life miserable if you didn't go along with the plan."

This teacher was also struck by the disconnect between students' abilities and their test scores.

"Students who really didn't speak English were coming back proficient and advanced," the teacher said.

The teacher has since left the school.

"I thought I hated teaching," the teacher said. "I thought it wasn't the career for me. But I'm in another school now, and I actually love teaching. It was that school."

During the 2008 PSSAs, Cortez would walk from classroom to classroom, another teacher said.

"If she saw you sitting down, she would call you to the door and she would tell you that you were to remain standing, that you were to walk around and make sure they're bubbling in the right answer," the teacher said.

After the students spent their mornings taking tests, Cortez wanted teachers to use the afternoons to drill them on the material they'd be tested on the next day, the teacher said.

"She'd say, 'Make sure you see what they're going to be tested on tomorrow, and teach that the rest of the afternoon,' " the teacher said. "She'd say: 'Teachers, did you look through your tests? Did you make sure the kids are ready?' "

That galled the teacher - both because state rules forbid looking ahead to material that has yet to be tested and because the students were elementary schoolers overwhelmed by a long morning taking a test they knew mattered a great deal.

Instead of looking ahead and drilling students, the teacher defied Cortez and designed a relaxing afternoon for them - movies, puzzles, games.

"They needed that," the teacher said.

The teacher was relieved upon finally leaving Cayuga.

"I struggled to get my teaching license, and I wasn't losing it for anyone," the teacher said.

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The state has set up a PSSA "integrity hotline" for teachers with information about cheating at their school. It is 855-448-2435855-448-2435 .