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AG: ‘Culture of Cheating’ in Philly School Tests

A Philadelphia principal and four teachers helped young children cheat on standardized tests by changing their answers and reviewing questions beforehand, prosecutors charged as they announced a widespread, ongoing grand jury investigation.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane accused the defendants Thursday of “perpetuating a culture of cheating” on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests over a five-year period. The grand jury found that after the cheating at their inner-city school stopped in 2012, the percentage of students who scored well on the tests dropped dramatically.

Fifth-grade reading proficiency fell from 50 percent to 16 percent at Cuyaga Elementary School, and math proficiency from 62 percent to 22 percent, authorities said.

“Significant pressures existed for the various schools to increase PSSA performance,” the grand jury report said. “When PSSA scores went up, school principals received promotion and accolades. Others avoided demotions and terminations.”

These undated photos provided by Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania shows from left Ary Sloane, Rita Wyszynski, and Lorraine Vicente. (AP Photo/Office of Attorney General of Pennsylvania)

In recent years, test cheating scandals have broken out in Atlanta, Nevada and other districts around the country, as public officials link scores to school funding and staff bonuses and vow to close schools that underperform. The School District of Philadelphia said Thursday that more than 30 traditional and charter schools have come under investigation over suspicious test scores. Three high school principals were fired this year, and other staff disciplined.

“I think the problem is very widespread,” said Kane, who declined to estimate the number of schools involved in the probe. “It’s concerning to us that the intimidation of teachers and students happened, and that good teachers were punished for refusing to break the law.”

The indictment Thursday focused on Cayuga, in the low-income Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia. Of the school’s approximately 450 students, 96 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Evelyn Cortez, left, and Jennifer Hughes, right. (AP Photo/Office of Attorney General of Pennsylvania)

Principal Evelyn Cortez, 59, was charged along with four teachers: Jennifer Hughes, 59; Lorraine Vicente, 41; Rita Wyszynski, 65; and Ary Sloane, 56. Cortez lives in the suburb of Dresher and Hughes in Jeffersonville. The other three are from Philadelphia. They were surrendering to police Thursday morning on charges that include racketeering, forgery, records tampering and conspiracy.

According to the report, Cayuga teachers were encouraged to bring the exams home to familiarize themselves with the tests, and Cortez reprimanded teachers and students who declined to cheat. When the exams were administered, Cortez allegedly went from room to room, sometimes tapping students’ booklets to get them to change answers.

Her lawyer, Marc Neff, called the pressure to raise test scores “systemic.”

“Everybody in the administration … wanted test scores to go up,” Neff said.

The state Education Department found irregularities in test answers submitted by Cayuga and other Pennsylvania schools and referred them to Kane’s office, the report said. Cayuga, for instance, had “an inordinate number of wrong-to-right erasures” across various grades for several years.

The school district said it has taken measures to address the problem. Beginning in early 2012, it increased test monitoring, changed proctor assignments and bolstered test administration training, the district said in a statement.

Cortez, Vicente and Hughes are charged with felony racketeering, records tampering, perjury, forgery and conspiracy. Sloane and Wyszynski are charged with records tampering, forgery and conspiracy. It was not immediately clear if the others have lawyers.

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