Test cheating not the schools' only problem

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said better detection of test cheating was responsible for a decline in reported scores. (RALPH RADFORD / Associated Press)

State education officials’ reaction to the first drop in test scores since Pennsylvania students began taking the standardized exams in 2002 conjures images from The Wizard of Oz.

Remember when the lovable charlatan who was pretending to be a wizard begged Dorothy and her determined crew of misfits — Toto, too — to pay no attention to him and instead focus their widening eyes on the noisy machinery he was manipulating.

Likewise, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis wants the public to disregard the hundreds of millions of dollars in public-school funding that the Corbett administration has cut and instead attribute the lower scores to better policing of cheaters.

The state’s tougher response to test cheating deserves a loud and long round of applause. But that laudable effort must be put in perspective. Tomalis says the state expects to eventually charge about 100 educators with cheating. Was catching those 100 out of Pennsylvania’s nearly 150,000 teachers responsible for the statewide decline in scores?

Gov. Corbett and Tomalis need to leave Oz and accept the reality that there have been consequences to their spending cuts. Tutoring and other programs that the schools implemented to improve academic performance had to be discarded. Teachers and aides had to be laid off. Of course those cuts had some impact on student performance, though to what degree isn’t really known.

Pennsylvania has never done right by its schools when it comes to funding. Nationally, state aid to schools amounts to about half of a district’s budget. But Pennsylvania school districts get only about 36 percent of their funding from the state, which means they depend a lot more on local taxes to operate. That’s fine in affluent districts, but pity the students in towns with poor tax bases.


Do you blame cheating for the drop in Pa. schools’ test scores, or cuts in state funding?

Already underfunded by the state, Pennsylvania schools were slapped by the recession, but didn’t realize how hard they had been hit until later. Both Gov. Ed Rendell and Corbett cut state education funding and made up the gap with federal stimulus money. School districts naively expected the state to restore its funding levels when the stimulus money ran out. They’re still waiting.

Academics are suffering, as evidenced by the declining test scores. About a fourth of Pennsylvania students didn’t perform at grade level in math and reading. The number at grade level in math (75.7 percent) fell 1.4 percent; while the number in reading (73.5 percent) fell 1.6 percent. The declines were worse in Philadelphia — a 9 percent drop in math, to 50 percent; and a 7 percent dip in reading, to 45 percent.

Of particular concern is Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County, the state’s largest charter, where scores fell about 30 percent in math and reading. There, the state’s new testing security measures could account for the dramatic difference in scores. In any case, the results provide another cautionary lesson about charters. They can be viable alternatives to regular public schools, but only if closely monitored to ensure academic and fiscal proficiency.