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Probers found testing breaches

A report on state-exam cheating allegations contradicts earlier denials

Stefanie Ressler (inset) was Roosevelt Middle School's principal until June. Test scores at the school jumped 50 points in math and almost 50 points in reading over the past three years. (Michael Bryant, Ed Hille / Staff)
Stefanie Ressler (inset) was Roosevelt Middle School's principal until June. Test scores at the school jumped 50 points in math and almost 50 points in reading over the past three years. (Michael Bryant, Ed Hille / Staff)Read more

Philadelphia School District investigators found evidence of "several violations" in state testing protocol at Roosevelt Middle School, supporting teachers' assertions that cheating occurred at the school, according to a nine-page internal report obtained by The Inquirer.

The report contradicts statements by senior officials that allegations of cheating at the East Germantown school - first reported in The Inquirer on May 1 - were "unfounded" and that investigators were stymied because no one had come forward to identify those they saw or suspected of cheating.

"They have never named a name," Fran Newberg, the district's deputy chief of accountability and educational technology, said at a news conference last month.

Yet the report explicitly describes administrators coaching students and staffers looking at tests and giving back unfinished papers to pupils for them to complete. One student's exam was completed and turned in even though the girl was absent the day of the test, according to the report.

In just two years, the school's scores on state exams skyrocketed 52 points in math and 51 in reading. The improvement was the best - by a considerable margin - of any comparable school in the district.

While names are redacted, the report clearly identifies Roosevelt's principal at the time - Stefanie Ressler - its testing coordinator, and assistant principals as engaging in problematic testing practices during the 2010 and 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA.

In the report, administrators denied all allegations.

Roosevelt teachers who were shown the report were incredulous and disputed Newberg's assertion that staff members had not been specific enough in their allegations. Numerous teachers "put their necks on the line" to give names and details, and students named specific administrators, one teacher said.

"What does the district want? That we 'come forward' again, taking yet another risk, so they can ignore us again?" the teacher asked.

Ressler, Roosevelt's principal until June, has not responded to interview requests. While teachers' allegations of cheating were dismissed, she was lauded for her performance at Roosevelt by then-Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and moved to a larger and better-performing school.

On Friday, a School District spokesman said the district had not stopped looking at Roosevelt.

"We are not writing off the allegations of improprieties," said Fernando Gallard. "We are continuing to investigate and follow all leads."

Before Ackerman left the district, she warned against reading too much into a 2009 state study of PSSA testing that flagged Roosevelt and 27 other city schools among 89 schools across the state for possible cheating.

"We're talking about erasure marks," Ackerman said. "We're not talking about cheating parties or, you know, wholesale cheating in a school or in a classroom."

The previously unknown state study, which surfaced this summer after the Roosevelt investigation was conducted, contained a sophisticated examination of erasures, and while Roosevelt stood out, so did several other city schools, such as Strawberry Mansion High School and Wagner Middle School.

The internal school report, however, focused on Roosevelt's testing climate. Investigators said that while they had not found "culpable proof" of staff misconduct, they had concluded that administrators fostered an environment where cheating could occur. Roosevelt, the report said, "tolerated and enabled non-sanctioned PSSA proctoring."

One key finding was that teachers said they had been told by Roosevelt's principal and test coordinator to "hand back" to students or "not to accept" test booklets with unanswered or incomplete items.

The district report also did not address statistical anomalies in test taking originally identified by The Inquirer in its May 1 article - for example, two-thirds of seventh graders reading below grade level, according to school records, while 73 percent tested proficient or advanced on state exams.

A subsequent Inquirer analysis of the state study found that 82 students at Roosevelt - one-quarter of the school's seventh and eighth graders tested - had statistically suspicious patterns of changing answers on state tests in 2009.

One seventh-grade student erased answers 35 times, changing them from wrong to right every time. The odds of that happening naturally are greater than 1 in 100 trillion.

The odds of winning the Powerball lottery are better.

Ressler recently appeared in a district-produced video tribute to Ackerman, praising the supports given to Roosevelt under Ackerman's Empowerment program, which targeted failing schools with extra resources and scrutiny from the central office.

Cassandra Houston, Ressler's assistant principal, has been promoted to principal.

The internal district report was obtained through a Right to Know request by The Inquirer. While the names of the school, students, and staff were redacted, the details match those detailed to The Inquirer by Roosevelt teachers.

The report also includes a May 2 memo - written a day after the first Inquirer article - explaining that extra teachers would be interviewed because of "the publicity around this allegation."

Among the findings in the report:

Students reported getting help on the test, particularly in the school Instructional Media Center, or library. "Several teachers mentioned that their students were eager to be sent to the IMC in 2010 and 2011, stating that 'they give you the answers there.' "

Six teachers told investigators that they had been present when the test coordinator and the assistant principal tipped off the staff that before tests were administered, they had "looked at the tests, and they were the same as last year."

Several teachers also said the principal had told them that they could look at the tests in advance.

Several teachers also told the interviewers that they had been instructed to coach students. "There was ample evidence from teacher and student statements that 'coaching' occurred, a term loosely given by administrators and interpreted by staff to equate with this practice of improperly assisting students."

Staff from the state Department of Education "made similar observations about the test-administration practices at the school, commenting that 'these situations could provide opportunities for breaches of test security and must be corrected.' "

District investigators recommended a detailed PSSA monitoring plan for Roosevelt.

"I did not see anything in that report that would lead to an unfounded conclusion," one Roosevelt teacher said. "If anything, it points to test tampering, breaches in protocol, and a situation that would lead itself to the possibility of cheating."

The teachers - and Aisha Mickeals, a behavioral-health worker who spent three years at Roosevelt, leaving in 2010 - first told The Inquirer of improprieties at Roosevelt.

The district's investigation into possible 2010 and 2011 cheating at Roosevelt took a dramatic turn when the state data analysis of possible 2009 PSSA improprieties surfaced.

The state directed the district to examine 28 schools flagged in the report for suspicious results, including Roosevelt. Though they said they had problems with the state's data analysis, district officials said last month that 13 of the 28 schools warranted further investigation because of big jumps in test scores and flags for erasures.

Before probing further into the 13 schools, the district has said, it wants the results of 2010 and 2011 state forensic PSSA analyses, plus additional data from the state and assistance in completing any investigations.

The district has said that even if the 13 schools were removed from the picture, the district would still have nine straight years of test-score gains. It said it would begin stricter PSSA monitoring this school year.

But Daniel Piotrowski, the district's executive director of accountability and assessment, said: "I think one of the problems we've had in investigating test allegations in the past is that we either have specific allegations that can't be proven, or very vague allegations against schools. I think right now what we have is very vague allegations against schools."

Still, officials said they took the allegations "very seriously."