For months, state and local education officials have had ample evidence pointing to likely cheating on standardized tests in some Philadelphia public schools.

Yet as the 2012 school year gets underway, the principals of some of those schools — including Stefanie Ressler and Evelyn Cortez —will not only remain in their jobs but will coordinate groups of their fellow principals charged with sharing strategies for improving student performance.

Pennsylvania's probe into possible cheating on state tests in 53 District schools is entering its second year, but the investigation apparently has led to no action against administrators or teachers suspected of wrongdoing.

Both Roosevelt Middle School when Ressler was principal and Cortez's Cayuga Elementary have unusual patterns of test score erasures, and anonymous teachers at both schools have told journalists of cheating behavior.

School personnel shouldn't be punished without conclusive proof of cheating, said Andrew Porter, a national expert on test cheating scandals.

"You're innocent until proven guilty," said Porter, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

But with lingering questions about the integrity of dozens of school leaders as school prepares to open, the Philadelphia School District has a big problem on its hands, he added:

"If [the investigation into possible cheating] would have been vigorous and immediate, we'd either have these individuals cleared, or they would be sanctioned for their inappropriate behavior, and this wouldn't be an issue."

Tough to prove, tough to punish

Last August, the Pennsylvania Department of Education launched an inquiry into possible cheating on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams in 38 districts and 10 charters across the state, including Philadelphia. The move came quick on the heels of a Notebook/NewsWorks report about a previously unreleased "forensic audit" that revealed statistical evidence of possible cheating at almost 90 Pennsylvania schools in 2009.

A year later, there is widespread evidence of high rates of suspicious "wrong-to-right" erasures in multiple grades, subjects, and years at dozens of Philadelphia District schools. Sources have said publicly that there have been "confessions."

But to date, said principals' union president Robert McGrogan, he is not aware of any local administrators who have been formally charged or sanctioned in connection with the probe.

Some find the lack of action galling.

"It's a farce that we're going to start the school year with investigations incomplete and principals returning to buildings when there's confirmed wrongdoing," said one source with knowledge of the probe.

But with careers in the balance and the threat of lawsuits looming, District and state officials are under tremendous pressure to make sure they get right any accusations, and any punitive actions.

"It is important that the investigation be thorough. Therefore, the district is committed to taking the time necessary to ensure its integrity and accuracy," wrote District General Counsel Michael A. Davis in a statement.

For both state and local education officials, it's new ground; in recent memory, few, if any, educators in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania have been sanctioned for cheating.

The first challenge facing investigators is definitively proving what specific individuals did. Regardless of how damning statistical evidence may seem, conclusive proof can come only through confessions or credible eyewitness accounts.

Obtaining that kind of proof demands time, money and tenacity.

A recent state probe of cheating in Atlanta is generally considered to be the gold standard for such efforts. There, 50 trained investigators worked full time for more than a year. The resulting report documented cheating at 44 schools and formally accused 178 teachers and administrators of wrongdoing. The vast majority of those accused have since retired or resigned.

Here, a comparatively small team from the Pennsylvania Office of the Inspector General has been conducting on-the-ground investigations at 11 District schools since January. Sources say those investigations are nearing completion, but there has been no official word.

At 20 other schools, the District is receiving pro bono investigatory help from the law firm Morgan, Lewis, Bockius LLP. After getting a late start, the volunteer attorneys have made contact with only a small handful of schools under their purview. District officials say they expect their investigations to be complete by the end of the calendar year.

At 22 other District schools involved in the probe, many of which show strong evidence of cheating, state officials have mandated only further "analytic review," not direct questioning of personnel who may have witnessed or participated in improper behavior.

Even if investigators do prove cheating by specific individuals, meting out punishment to the adults responsible will not be simple.

Under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, the state commission that certifies and monitors teachers and principals has the authority to issue a reprimand or suspend or revoke an educator's license.

Under its collective bargaining agreements, the District can discipline, fine, suspend or terminate an employee "for cause" after extensive due process.

According to sources with knowledge of the investigation, District officials are waiting for the state to act first.

"They have the ability to preempt anything we do here, [but] they haven't given a clear signal," said one source.

State Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller declined comment on the state's intentions, but noted that "personnel decisions remain the purview of local districts."

If there is confusion or reluctance, it can be attributed in part to the utter lack of precedent.

"We have never had this kind of situation before," said one source.

Rewards, not penalties?

In the meantime, a new school year is beginning, and administrators who ran a number of schools under investigation have been bumped up to better assignments or given new responsibilities.

Stefanie Ressler, for example, was the principal of Roosevelt Middle School between 2009 and 2011.

During that time, Roosevelt saw astronomical test score gains. But those results have since been tainted by overwhelming patterns of suspicious erasures on student test forms and accusations by teachers of pervasive cheating by school administrators.

According to confidential documents obtained by NewsWorks and the Notebook, Roosevelt was flagged for suspicious "wrong-to-right" erasures 12 of a possible 12 times during this period – in every tested grade and subject during every year covered by the investigation.

No hard evidence of cheating by specific individuals at Roosevelt has yet been made public, however.

In the meantime, Ressler is beginning her second year as principal of Woodrow Wilson Middle School in the Northeast.

At Roosevelt, one of Ressler's former assistant principals, Cassandra Houston, will begin her second year at the helm. And the school's former testing coordinator, Leta Johnson, will begin her first year as principal at Pratt Elementary.

The cloud of suspicion is taking a toll on Roosevelt, Houston said.

"The school is making efforts to recover from past accusations and trying to make sure that everything done at the school is done at the highest level," said Houston, who was an assistant principal at Roosevelt during Ressler's last year there.

Ressler will also serve this year as one of the district's 24 new coordinators of "Principal Learning Teams," – a volunteer role in which she will help organize collaborative learning opportunities for about 20 other principals.

Such trajectories are not unique to the former members of the Roosevelt team. Numerous other District administrators have been elevated to new positions and responsibilities despite being closely associated with schools under investigation.

All told, almost one-third of the new PLT coordinators led schools involved in the cheating probe.

Among those is Evelyn Cortez, who is still the principal at Cayuga Elementary despite extensive patterns of suspicious erasures under her watch.

Between 2009 and 2011, Cayuga was flagged 10 of a possible 18 times for suspicious erasures.

In February the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted anonymous Cayuga teachers who said they witnessed multiple irregularities, including administrators erasing wrong answers. They said Cortez told them to help students during the test, a clear violation of the rules.

Cortez emphatically denied the allegations at the time.

Cortez, Ressler, and Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard emphasized that the PLT coordinators are volunteers and were selected by their peers, but otherwise declined to comment.

It's a sensitive time, and caution is prudent, said David Adamany, the former chancellor at Temple University who is serving as an unpaid "testing integrity advisor" to the District.

"This is a sensitive process in which both educational quality in the School District and reputations and careers of district personnel are at stake," wrote Adamany in an email.

"There is a heavy burden on all of us to get this right, so that children are served and individuals are treated justly."

This story includes reporting by Dale Mezzacappa, of the Public School Notebook, a WHYY/NewsWorks journalism partner.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the sources who said there have been confessions of wrong-to-right erasures.


Additional reporting by Dale Mezzacappa of the Public School Notebook