The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

October 18, 2011

Education department refuses to release documents

SUNBURY — The state Department of Education is refusing to release documents explaining what investigators have done in response to a report that a Shikellamy School District teacher inappropriately copied portions of an old state test and shared the answers with students.

But, a department investigator said that the investigation is still open and pointed to a similar case in Uniontown that ended only after a teacher gave up her license to avoid losing it.

“All we can say is that an investigation is ongoing,” said Educational Assessment Specialist Jack Hoerner. “The department will announce more at the end of the investigation.”

This comes after the Department of Education denied The Daily Item’s Right To Know request for emails from the department to the Shikellamy district about improper preparation by a teacher for the 2010 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

The request was denied because it dealt with documents created as part of a noncriminal investigation, officials said.

“Records relating to a noncriminal investigation, including investigative materials, notes, correspondence and reports, are exempt from disclosure and therefore are not public record,” said Department of Education Open Records Officer Michael Bressi. Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law presumes that almost all public documents are available for public review, but the law includes 30 exceptions designed to protection confidential information or information that might jeopardize investigations, according to information on the Open Records website.

Despite the department’s denial of the newspaper’s request under the Right to Know Law, the newspaper was provided with two documents from May 2010: one previously released by Shikellamy in which the state acknowledged receiving the district’s report of a problem, and another in which investigators asked for contact information for a Shikellamy teacher. The Department of Education redacted the name of the teacher before releasing the letter.

The questions about the 2010 tests surfaced only after the 2011 test results were released, showing a 23.6 percent drop in scores on the 11th-grade math test. District Superintendent Robin Musto called the 2010 numbers “irregular.”

Former Superintendent James Hartman, who oversaw the investigation into the misconduct, said he believes the test results still demonstrate that students in the district did well in 2010 and regrets that the unidentified teacher’s actions will discredit the achievement of those students. Test results showed a 30 percent improvement in math scores, which disappeared the following year when math test results fell back 23.6 percent.

The letters provided by the department stated they received the findings of an investigation into the alleged irregularities at Shikellamy High School during the administration of the 2010 state reading and math tests.

Hoerner, who was the original state official investigating this particular case and is named on the documents provided to the newspaper, said he has since been taken off the investigation and would not comment further.

He did, however, say that punishment for the type of inappropriate test preparations alleged in Shikellamy could result in the state revoking a teacher’s license.

Hoerner used an example where in March 2005, a teacher from Uniontown surrendered her certification to avoid disciplinary action after district officials accused her of providing answers for the reading section of the previous year’s PSSA tests.

“When there are cases of educational misconduct, a license can be revoked,” Hoerner said. “It depends on circumstances involving a case.”

He said it can take up to two years to finish an investigation.

The Shikellamy case was opened in May 2010.

— Email comments to fscarcella@dailyitem.com.

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