Pennsylvania's top education official addresses suspicions of cheating

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July 15, 2011

Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Earlier this week, The Notebook - an independent news blog covering Philadelphia Public Schools - announced it had discovered a 44-page document on a computer disc of what was supposedly raw data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The document turned out to be a data forensics technical report from 2009 that identified "highly improbably test score gains and suspicious erasure patterns" on the statewide Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exam.[1] Though the report did not explicitly identify the anomalies as clear evidence of cheating, the threshold for suspicion "was so high as to make it almost impossible that the problematic wrong-to-right erasure patterns occurred purely by chance."[1]

The report had been delivered in July 2009 to the Department's Bureau of Assessment and Accountability, but never made it to the desk of then-Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak.[2] Spokesperson Tim Eller said the department is "concerned about who no one looked at it or took any action. It basically sat on a shelf for two years."[3]

Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis has responded on several fronts. He launched an internal review of the department to determine why the 2009 analysis was never brought to the attention of Zahorchak, ordered a similar analysis of the state's 2010 PSSA scores, and has given more than 3 dozen school districts across the state 30 days to conduct internal audits to investigate suspicious scores and report back with explanations of the discrepancies.[3]

Tomalis admitted his concern, but reassured Pennsylvanians of the integrity of his department: "It is very accurate to say I have concerns that people may be misusing the PSSA or interfering with the proper administration of the PSSA to evaluate gains. I'm very confident that is the exception, overwhelmingly the exception, rather than the rule in Pennsylvania. I have great confidence in the professionalism of the teachers in our public school system."[4]

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