Thursday, July 14, 2011

Time to investigate, for real

We are waiting with baited breath to see how the Herald-Standard handles a real story worthy of investigation: yesterday's news that a state report has flagged two local school districts -- Uniontown and Connellsville -- for possible cheating on standardized tests called the PSSA.

Based on the story announcing this news, "PDE investigating report that flags districts for possible cheating on PSSA," the early prognosis for any tough probing is not encouraging. How can it be when that particular story doesn't even mention which Connellsville schools were flagged in the report?

All the Herald-Standard chose to divulge was that "Third-grade PSSA results from Ben Franklin School (in the Uniontown Area School District) were flagged on the report," and that "several elementary schools in the Connellsville Area School District" were also flagged.

See for yourself:

We had to check out the same story on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's website to find out that the Connellsville schools implicated in this report were: Bullskin Township Elementary School, Clifford N. Pritts Elementary School, South Side Elementary School, Connellsville Area Career and Technical School.

You would think that if you are going to name the one school building in Uniontown that has this potential problem, you would also name the four buildings in Connellsville that are alleged to have it too. Perhaps Herald-Standard editor Mark OKeefe has a good explanation for why that did not happen.

The Post-Gazette also provided its readers an important perspective by noting that the report flagged eight school districts and one charter school in southwestern Pennsylvania for possible cheating.

The Associated Press provided even better perspective: at least three dozen schools, or about 36 of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, were flagged in the report, prepared for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

No one is accusing anyone of wrongdoing at this point. But the perspective of a source quoted in the Post-Gazette story is worth giving to the public, especially since it was missing from the Herald-Standard story.

Andy Porter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed the report, and said this to the Post-Gazette: "If there's one flag, that's something to be investigated because to get a flag, you have to have a result that is just completely beyond anything expected to happen by chance ... I don't think we're talking about student cheating here at all. We're talking about adult cheating."

This certainly sounds to us like something the Herald-Standard should investigate. As a topic, it is at least on par with the fake letter to the editor the newspaper published from Ruth Thompson, the controvery over using tax dollars to launch and fund Fayette TV, criticism by one disgruntled member of the Marcellus Shale Task Force and the Connellsville Area School Board's threat to yank its legal advertising from the newspaper.

All of those topics were judged to warrant saturation coverage by the newspaper, generating front page stories and editorial commentary. But those were easy targets. This one's a little tougher, and even though it does not involve the newspaper's finances or reputation, it is certainly no less important.

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