News Column

Philly School Officials Surrender Credentials in Cheating Scandal

April 4, 2013

Kristen A. Graham

Two Philadelphia educators have lost their administrative credentials in the first public actions taken in a widespread Philadelphia standardized test-cheating scandal.

Former Philadelphia School District principals Barbara McCreery of Communications Technology High School and Lolamarie Davis-O'Rourke of Locke Elementary both voluntarily surrendered their administrative certificates in lieu of discipline last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Education said Wednesday.

Both confessed to cheating, an official with firsthand knowledge of the investigations said. According to state records, McCreery erased and changed students' answers, created an answer key, and manipulated student data; O'Rourke also erased and changed answers and gave students answers.

"Instead of going through the hearing process, they surrendered," the source said of McCreery and O'Rourke.

And, the official said, the actions against the two are "just the beginning," with more penalties against other district educators expected "in the next few weeks."

Both principals had left the district this school year; McCreery, a 37-year veteran of the district, had been paid $142,724, and O'Rourke, who had 14 years in the district, made $138,818.

Neither could be reached for comment.

O'Rourke apparently now works as an administrator in the Trenton school system.

Unlike the Atlanta cheating scandal, where 35 educators have been indicted on criminal charges, neither McCreery nor O'Rourke will be subject to criminal penalties, state officials have said.

Beginning with the 2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, educators had to sign affidavits acknowledging that if they tampered with tests, they would be subject to criminal charges; without that affidavit, officials don't believe they had the juice to press charges.

Though they gave up administrative licenses, McCreery and O'Rourke get to retain their Pennsylvania teaching certificates, but any potential employers would be notified they lost their supervisory credentials.

It also appears that McCreery and O'Rourke will keep their pensions.

A spokeswoman for the state employees' pension system said that although she could not speak directly to McCreery's and O'Rourke's cases, in general, only those subject to criminal charges would lose their pensions.

Citywide, 53 district schools and three charters remain under scrutiny for possible cheating beginning with state tests administered in 2009. Statewide, a number of schools and districts that had been the subject of investigations have either been cleared or their probes closed.

Among the 53 district schools under investigation, both Comm Tech, in Southwest Philadelphia, and Locke, in West Philadelphia, are considered "Tier One" schools -- schools where violations were found to be widespread and not limited to one classroom or grade.

McCreery left Comm Tech in 2010, then spent time as an administrator at Benjamin Franklin, Swenson, and Bok High Schools. The year after McCreery left Comm Tech, state test scores dropped by almost 40 points in reading and more than 40 points in math. Her last day in the district was Wednesday, according to a spokesman.

On her personal website, McCreery boasts that she "shines as a luminary in her field, making the most of virtually four decades of professional experience she has nurtured as an educator and productive leader." She says she is working on a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University.

O'Rourke abruptly left Locke just before this school year began. Scores there -- and in schools under investigation for cheating -- tumbled last year after unprecedented security measures were enacted. The percentage of Locke students passing in reading dropped 42 points in math and 32 points in reading.

One staffer who worked with O'Rourke at Locke never witnessed cheating, but said "there were rumors about it before it ever became public. Allegedly, she had asked people to do some things to alter the test."

The Locke staffer said that what O'Rourke did was wrong, and that she should certainly suffer penalties. But the staffer said those penalties wouldn't address the larger issue of the culture of high-stakes testing.

"All those people that were putting pressure on principals are getting nothing," the staffer said. "The scores were really low before [O'Rourke] came, and she was seen as someone who could really get them up, and no one batted an eye when we went from 20 percent to 60 percent." It's been more than a year since investigations were launched into possible improprieties, and the state has already moved to take disciplinary actions against more than 100 educators statewide.

Why have Philadelphia's investigations been so slow to come to a head?

"Getting people to talk about it initially was an issue," the person with firsthand knowledge of the investigations said. "Some people probably felt they were immune from this. It took a lot of time, it took a lot of pressure."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard, who said more investigations will be completed this week and the findings announced later this month, said the district supported the state's actions "and believes that there must be severe consequences for adults that have violated testing integrity protocols in schools."

Gallard said the district "will take action against any individual found to have committed this type of injustice."

State education officials were pleased that the disciplinary process is moving forward.

"This is evidence that the department is serious about cracking down on this type of activity," said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Possible PSSA cheating first came to light two years ago, when teachers and others at two other district schools -- Roosevelt Middle and Cayuga Elementary -- provided detailed accounts to The Inquirer about widespread test-tampering at their schools.



Source: (c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by MCT Information Services


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