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State to Monitor BASD for Testing Irregularities

The state Department of Education says it closed an investigation on Bethlehem Area School District for testing irregularities but still plans to monitor the district.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education says it closed an investigation of testing irregularities at the Bethlehem Area School District but will continue to monitor the district's schools on PSSA testing.

In 2011, the state began investigating 48 school districts and charter schools around the state based on significant increases in student test scores in some schools, according to the state Education Department

The probe found that at some schools in Pennsylvania, student answer sheets had been altered with questionable erasures, dating back to the 2008-2009 school year, inflating Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, the state said. 

Of those 48 districts and charter schools, 30 were cleared of wrongdoing, the state said. 

But the state said it will continue to monitor testing at BASD and five other school districts and charter schools.

BASD Superintendent Joseph Roy said he and the assistant superintendent "conducted a thorough analysis of the erasure data as well as conducted multiple interviews of students and teachers regarding the data provided by [the Education Dept.] 

"The BASD investigation found not a single incident of an adult altering student answer sheets," Roy said in a prepared statement. "These findings were accepted by the Department of Education and the district was informed the case was closed." 

He said they were told that, as with other schools, there would be continued monitoring but were surprised by the department's statement. He said he has confidence in the BASD staffs' professionalism and welcomes any monitoring by the state. 

The state says it will continue investigating nine school districts and charter schools, including some in Philadelphia, Reading, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Hazeleton.

"In the coming weeks, the department will file complaints against more than 100 educators who have been involved in misconduct in administration of the PSSA," said state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis. "The department will later determine if charges need to be filed in these matters before the Professional Standards and Practices Commission."  

Statewide the percentage of students who scored advanced or proficient in math declined by 1.4 percentage points and those who scored advanced or proficient in reading declined 1.6 percentage points, according Tomalis. He claimed that the declines can be attributed to tighter scrutiny by the state in testing procedures.

But representatives of the PSEA, the state's largest teachers union, told The Morning Call that explanation discounts the $1 billion in state budget cuts for schools in the last couple of years. They argued that the investigation did not uncover widespread cheating, but only allegedly found it in a small number of the state's 500 school districts -- which shouldn't have influenced the statewide scores so much.

Fewer Bethlehem schools hit proficiency targets based on the PSSAs taken last spring than the year before. Superintendent Joseph Roy pointed out earlier this month that dozens of teaching positions and tutoring hours were cut last year, which might have contributed to the drop, according to a Morning Call story.  

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