The principal hailed the test-score gains as a "miracle" - evidence that disadvantaged students could overcome enormous challenges to realize their full potential.
In just two years, the 400 seventh and eighth graders at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in East Germantown had jumped a stunning 52 points in math on a 100-point scale and 51 in reading on the statewide assessment known as the PSSA. The improvement was the best - by a considerable margin - of any comparable school in the School District of Philadelphia.
At a ceremony in August, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, then-Gov. Ed Rendell, and other luminaries heaped praise on principal Stefanie Ressler for turning around Roosevelt - deemed persistently dangerous by the state, with nearly nine of 10 students living in poverty and 25 percent needing special-education services.
But a group of Roosevelt teachers told The Inquirer that they believed the rise in scores had been achieved in part through cheating.
Several said they had witnessed apparent breaches in test security - from answers written on a blackboard to senior staff's encouraging teachers to drill certain concepts they knew appeared on the exam. One teacher reported seeing students, with test booklets and answer sheets out, all engaged in conversation with the principal.
Ressler, a veteran educator who has also been praised by district leaders for reducing violence at the school, did not respond to multiple requests for comment beginning Friday morning, and district spokeswoman Shana Kemp declined to answer specific questions about possible test breaches. "The district has a very robust test-monitoring system in place," she said.
Allegations of testing irregularities at Roosevelt have been reported to the state, according to the teachers, who said the complaint had triggered a district investigation that will begin as early as this week. A spokesman for the state Department of Education declined to confirm or deny an investigation, but said complaints were "taken seriously."
In addition to interviews with Roosevelt teachers, an Inquirer analysis of the school's data revealed a number of discrepancies between the PSSA results and other measurements of student performance, including report cards and "benchmark" tests given in district schools every six weeks.
For example, 66 percent of the school's seventh graders read below grade level in the 2009-10 school year, according to school records, but 73 percent were proficient or advanced on PSSA reading tests. Eight students tested advanced in reading on the PSSA but were on a third- or fourth-grade reading level according to a test administered at the school.
Other Inquirer findings include:
Roosevelt's scores in reading and math were far below district and state averages as recently as two years ago. Now they easily beat the district average and exceed the statewide average.
Roosevelt students taking the eighth-grade math test during the last five years made enormous gains, from 14 percent passing to 76 percent. Much of that was in the last two years. Reading scores also soared the last two years, to 83 percent from 28 percent.
The school's performance on state science and writing tests - which, unlike reading and math tests, do not trigger sanctions for poor performance - was abysmal, and out of sync with reading and math results. On the 2010 science exam, for instance, just 4 percent of eighth graders passed; on writing, the figure was 23 percent. Those numbers significantly lagged district and state averages.
Roosevelt report-card grades and state test scores often do not match up. Among 201 middle and high schools, it has the biggest discrepancy between grades and state test scores, according to an Inquirer analysis of the district's data.
Briefed about the Roosevelt data and teachers' accounts, Gregory J. Cizek, professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina, said the school's scores were questionable.
"You've got multiple independent sources of information," Cizek said. "To me, the conclusion is their scores aren't credible."
Allegations of cheating on state exams are not new, and The Inquirer also received information about a breach in test security at FitzSimons High in North Philadelphia, suggesting a broader problem. Elsewhere, districts in Atlanta and Washington have investigated suspected widespread test improprieties recently. And an 2006 Inquirer investigation revealed cheating in the Camden school system.
To be sure, Cizek said, "miracles do happen." But, he said, it's unusual that large numbers of students at a single school have such dramatic improvement.
"These kids should be retested under state-monitored conditions to confirm the validity of their scores," Cizek said.
Teachers interviewed at Roosevelt said they had reached similar conclusions after seeing their students' PSSA scores.
"There are some kids who maybe you could argue just did a lot better on the PSSA or happened to take that test seriously," one teacher said. "But there are certain students who consistently, across all subject areas, have D's or F's who are consistently under 40 percent on benchmark tests. I looked at their scores and said, 'These have to be manipulated.' "
The teachers asked that their names be withheld for fear of reprisal.
The district has moved aggressively to penalize whistle-blowers. Just last week, its governing body - the School Reform Commission - approved firing a senior administrator after the district spent $173,000 investigating the awarding of a security-camera contract and whether the staffer had leaked information to reporters.
'It's still going on'
The day before FitzSimons High began administering the PSSA in March, one teacher at the school - which also educates seventh and eighth graders - walked into The Inquirer newsroom carrying what the teacher said were two state test booklets. Those booklets are supposed to be kept under lock and key.
The teacher said teachers at the school were encouraged to sign out the tests - which had arrived three weeks before the exam began - and use them to help students improve their scores.
What the FitzSimons teacher described "is a violation of test security," confirmed John Weiss, director of the Pennsylvania Education Department's Bureau of Assessment and Accountability.
State officials would not confirm or deny whether the test brought to The Inquirer was an official PSSA exam.
The FitzSimons teacher said school administrators commonly asked teachers to prescreen tests and coach students on them, even after the PSSAs were over.
"It's still going on," the teacher said Thursday. "Today, we were told that benchmark tests are available and we can come and get them."
The FitzSimons teacher also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
PSSA scores matter
In Philadelphia, PSSA reading and math scores matter in multiple ways.
Ackerman has repeatedly cited rising test scores as evidence of her success after her hiring in June 2008.
Principals are evaluated in part on a school's annual report, which includes PSSA scores. And scores help determine whether a school is placed in "corrective action," a status that - if sustained long enough - can trigger the district's deeming it a Renaissance school.
If that happens, the principal and most of the staff can be forced to leave their jobs.
Roosevelt had been in "corrective action 2" - the worst status - from 2003 through 2008, by which time Ressler was principal. In 2009, PSSA scores were up, and the school was "making progress." Scores continued to rise sharply in 2010, when, for the first time, the school was making "adequate yearly progress."
FitzSimons, as of 2010, was in the seventh year of corrective action 2 status. The school is scheduled to be overhauled as a Promise Academy next year - a district-run school with extended hours, a longer school year, and a new principal and staff.
Robert Schaeffer, public-education director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said that there was enormous pressure on principals and teachers - and that, in some cases, it spurred cheating.
"When test scores become the only thing that matters in judging schools and teachers, some educators feel they have to boost scores by hook or by crook," Schaeffer said.
Once allegations reach the state, the school and district are notified, said Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. District officials have 45 days to conduct an independent investigation and file a report with the state.
After a report is filed with the state, the findings are forwarded to the Office of General Counsel.
"There are instances when educators can lose their certification, depending on how severe it is," Eller said.
"Any allegations are taken seriously," he said.
Between 10 and 15 allegations of test security breaches are reported to the district's Office of Assessment each year, and "a few" cases have been substantiated, said Kemp, the district spokeswoman.
"We investigate all allegations that are reported to us, but as it is an investigative process, whenever we are in the midst of an investigation we have to maintain the fidelity of the process," she said.
The Roosevelt teachers said they had noticed test improprieties - and had been suspicious of cheating - for a few years. One teacher described witnessing several apparent breaches - teachers being asked to check that students' answers were correct, teachers being encouraged to create answer sheets, and an administrator "giving books back to kids if their answers were wrong."
While proctoring a test at the school, the teacher saw a full answer to a writing question on a blackboard.
All the teachers said they suspected test manipulation had happened in the school's library, where a number of students were sent to take PSSA exams. Some teachers said they had been told to send their most disruptive pupils to the library.
On a trip to the library during testing, one teacher witnessed a chaotic scene, with about 40 students taking the exam with administrators present. Answer sheets and test booklets were open on desks, and several students with booklets open were grouped around the table where Ressler was seated and were talking to the principal.
The same teacher - and several others - also described a pretest teacher professional-development session this year when an administrator said, "Eighth-grade math teachers, you want to be working on probability," followed by several coughs. "And you might want to be working on equations," the administrator said, coughing again.
This teacher said there appeared to be more attempts to keep the breaches under wraps this year than in the past.
Another teacher said that in the same pretest professional-development session, administrators had told the staff, "If the kids have questions, coach them."
In prior years, this teacher said, "the word coach came up all the time. But the instructions from the state are clear - no coaching."
All the Roosevelt teachers who came to The Inquirer said students had told them that administrators helped those taking tests in the library.
"I had one girl actually admit that she was trying to take too long so she could go downstairs, because they would help her down there," another teacher said. "The kids say, 'If you raise your hand and say you need help, they'll tell you if your answer is wrong or right.' "
The other teachers concurred, and said they often heard that students could get test assistance in the library.
The teachers said the way the school handled testing was disturbing to them.
"It bothers me a lot," another teacher said. "It's this open secret that they're cheating."
Ultimately, the teachers agreed, the students will suffer.
"This is not a service to them," one teacher said. "It's hurting the kids. It's not right."
Cizek, the professor and expert on cheating, agreed.
"This is a lose-lose-lose for everybody," he said. "The students are passed on, and they don't get the intervention needed to be successful at the next grade level, or to graduate. The parents are misinformed about their students' progress."
More About Roosevelt
Test scores are not all that set Theodore Roosevelt Middle School apart in recent years.
According to district statistics, serious incidents such as assault dropped dramatically there,
from 49 in 2008-09 to 19 in 2009-10.
In The Inquirer's recent series on school violence, "Assault on Learning," Roosevelt teachers were quoted as saying administrators routinely discouraged reporting of incidents and downplayed their seriousness.
"In the classroom, kids can curse at us, throw things, and fight, and nothing happens to them," one teacher said.
Tomás Hanna, a Philadelphia School District associate superintendent, however, attributed the improvement to new "behavior-support" programs at the school and to principal Stefanie Ressler.
Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.