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Philly educators accused of helping students cheat

PHILADELPHIA — A city principal and four teachers helped young children cheat on standardized tests by changing their answers and reviewing questions beforehand, prosecutors charged as they announced a widespread, ongoing grand jury investigation.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane accused the defendants Thursday of ‘‘perpetuating a culture of cheating’’ on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests over a five-year period. The grand jury found that after the cheating at their inner-city school stopped in 2012, the percentage of students who scored well on the tests dropped dramatically.

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Fifth-grade reading proficiency fell from 50 percent to 16 percent at Cayuga Elementary School, and math proficiency from 62 percent to 22 percent, authorities said.

‘‘Significant pressures existed for the various schools to increase PSSA performance,’’ the grand jury report said. ‘‘When PSSA scores went up, school principals received promotions and accolades. Others avoided demotions and terminations.’’

In recent years, test cheating scandals have broken out in Atlanta, Nevada, and other districts around the country, as public officials link scores to school funding and staff bonuses and vow to close schools that underperform. The School District of Philadelphia said Thursday that more than 30 traditional and charter schools have come under investigation over suspicious test scores.

‘‘I think the problem is very widespread,’’ said Kane, who declined to estimate the number of schools involved in the probe. ‘‘It’s concerning to us that the intimidation of teachers and students happened, and that good teachers were punished for refusing to break the law.’’

The indictment Thursday focused on Cayuga, in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia. Of the school’s 450 students, 96 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Principal Evelyn Cortez, 59, was charged along with four teachers: Jennifer Hughes, 59; Lorraine Vicente, 41; Rita Wyszynski, 65; and Ary Sloane, 56.

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