The computers that grade standardized tests of students in Pennsylvania noticed something odd in 2011.
While the average third-grader in the reading section erased a wrong answer and successfully choose the right one about once, nearly half of the about 70 third-graders at Philadelphia's Cayuga Elementary School corrected themselves five or more times.
The deviation that was uncovered led to a sweeping indictment Thursday of the school's principal and four teachers who, according to an ongoing grand jury investigation, "systemically cheated to increase Cayuga's test scores by changing student answers, providing test answers to students, and improperly reviewing test questions prior to administering the test."
As state officials started investigating in 2012, the percentage of third-graders at Cayuga who scored at least proficient in the reading section dropped to 26.8% from 60.3%.
A teacher testified to the grand jury that a culture of cheating, dating back to 2008, included announcements over the school's loudspeaker that students in 2011 scribble answers on scrap paper first. That enabled teachers to check the answers before students recorded them on the real answer sheet.
The teacher told jurors that administrators at the 400-student school constantly shuffled teachers around, moving teachers who scored poorly to first- and second-grade classrooms. Those younger students do not take standardized tests.
Two other teachers testified that they saw test booklets spread across the principal's desk – a violation of testing procedures. In one case, an official told jurors, the principal ordered him to delete surveillance footage of the scene.
The principal, Evelyn Cortez, was charged Thursday with corrupt organizations, perjury, tampering with public records, forgery, tampering with records and criminal conspiracy.
She is accused of reprimanding students and teachers who didn't go along with the suspected cheating, which prosecutors allege also involved her tapping on student desks as a signal to change a wrong answer. Cortez, 59, even boasted at a teachers' meeting that those that reported her for cheating had all left the school while she was still there, a teacher told grand jurors.
An attorney for Cortez told WCAU-TV that the charges are false.
Teachers Lorraine Vicente, 41, and Jennifer Hughes, 59, were charged with the same crimes as Cortez. Vicente is accused of walking around the classroom with an answer key.
Ary Sloane, 56, and Rita Wyszynski, 65, were both charged with tampering with public records, forgery, tampering with records and criminal conspiracy. All five suspects were indefinitely suspended by the School District of Philadelphia on Thursday after surrendering to authorities.
"Cheating robs children of a good education and hurts kids and families," Pennsylvania Atty. Gen. Kathleen Kane said in a statement. "The alleged misconduct by these educators is an affront to the public's trust and will not be tolerated."
The school district said the ongoing 2011 investigation also uncovered suspicious results on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment at 13 other schools. Earlier this year, the district said 15 active and former employees had been fired or disciplined as a result of suspicious testing behavior found at a separate set of 19 schools. Since 2012, the district said it had increased security and monitoring to help ensure the integrity of the test.