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Chester Community Charter School investigation closes

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has closed its investigation of the Chester Community Charter School, formally ending an inquiry that began in July 2011 and at one time focused on suspected testing irregularities at 48 school districts and charter schools across the state.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has closed its investigation of the Chester Community Charter School, formally ending an inquiry that began in July 2011 and at one time focused on suspected testing irregularities at 48 school districts and charter schools across the state.

The department, in a statement issued Sept. 21, said that the investigation of Chester Community and four school districts was closed but that each would continue to be monitored. An article published Sept. 23 in The Inquirer erred in reporting that the investigation was continuing.

In a letter dated Sept. 20, Carolyn Dumaresq, the Education Department's deputy secretary, informed the school that the investigation "did not yield clear conclusions notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence of testing irregularities."

The investigation of Chester Community - the state's largest charter school - centered on the results of Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests conducted between 2009 and 2011. State officials in 2011 cited erasures on tests in which the answers were changed from wrong to right, noting that the number of incidents was statistically significant.

David Clark, the chief executive of Chester Community, said he was satisfied that the investigation had ended and stressed that the school faced no sanctions from the state as a result.

"We are pleased that the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has announced that its investigation of the results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) for 2009, 2010 and 2011 at Chester Community Charter School is now closed without any disciplinary action taken against the school," Clark said in a statement last week.

When the investigation began in 2011, the state directed the 48 school districts and schools to look into possible irregularities. That initial examination cleared 30 districts and charter schools of wrongdoing, according to the Education Department's Sept. 21 statement.

In four other cases, the state closed inquiries without indicating whether the parties had been cleared. The Philadelphia School District and three city charter schools are among nine cases around the state that remain under investigation.

Chester Community and four others will undergo monitoring during future tests because of the irregularities found by the state inquiry, according to Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Education Department.

State officials might still seek disciplinary measures against educators at several schools where irregularities were found, Eller said. Test scores could also be altered, which could have an impact on whether schools met state standards from 2009 through 2011.

Dumaresq's letter to Chester Community outlined measures that the school must take to safeguard future tests. They include storing test materials in a locked location that is monitored round the clock by a security company, administering the tests to students in a room equipped with a security camera, and hiring an independent auditing firm to ensure that the school follows proper test administration requirements.

Those measures were imposed "because of information that came to light during the investigation process," Eller said, without elaborating.

A. Bruce Crawley, a spokesman for Chester Community Charter School, declined last week to comment on the measures. Crawley emphasized that the state "did not find a pattern of inappropriate testing procedures at the school sufficient to continue what had already been a lengthy investigation."

In an interview Sept. 21, Crawley said the school welcomed the additional security measures. "If there is a suspicion and a concern about the actual performance of the student, we want to clear that up," he said. "If [security measures are] needed to ensure this is a program with integrity, we will do that."

The school has consistently denied that there were any testing irregularities. In a letter to Dumaresq in February, Chester Community's attorney, Francis J. Catania, said the school's investigation "uncovered absolutely no evidence of testing improprieties or irregularities. . . . Our internal review reaffirmed the effectiveness and superiority of CCCS's testing standards and security - for which you have commended CCCS in the past."

Catania wrote that the investigation "established that . . . improvements in PSSA test scoring are the direct result of hard work, innovative educational programming and persistent preparation by the students, teachers, administrators and parents at CCCS, and not some purported nefarious conduct or 'cheating.' "

Catania wrote that erasures on students' tests could be explained by test-taking strategies the school encourages students to use.

In addition to Chester Community, the school districts that will receive monitoring are: Delaware Valley School District, Pike County; Derry Area School District, Westmoreland County; the School District of Lancaster, Lancaster County; and the School District of the City of Monessen, Westmoreland County.

The nine districts and charter schools that remain under active investigation are: the School District of Philadelphia; Imhotep Institute Charter High School, Philadelphia; Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter High School; Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, Philadelphia; Harrisburg City School District, Dauphin County; Hazleton Area School District, Luzerne County; Pittsburgh School District, Allegheny County; Reading School District, Berks County; and Scranton School District, Lackawanna County.