Principal tells of pressure to cheat
Ohanian Comment: This is a profoundly distressing story. The pressures under NCLB are tremendous--and they're going to get worse. I'm not eager to get in line to condemn people who do cheat.
By Melanie Burney, Frank Kummer and Dwight Ott
Principal Joseph Carruth was riding down the slow, paneled elevator at Camden's district office, ready to cave in to pressure from a superior who he says had just given him a tutorial on how to cheat on state tests.
"My head is spinning," Carruth recounted to The Inquirer of his feelings that day in January 2005. "I can't believe it."
Still green on the job at Camden's Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High, Carruth needed medical benefits for his ill daughter. He did not have tenure. He was tempted to take whatever steps necessary to keep his job.
"I was thinking, 'How can I do it?' " Carruth said about that day. "And then it's, like, 'What are you doing? You can't do this.' "
In his first public comments about the allegations that have shaken South Jersey's largest school system, Carruth laid out in vivid detail the pressure he said was put on him to keep test scores high.
It wasn't just his career at stake. Carruth said his daughter's condition - and his ability to care for her if he didn't have a job - came up in what he said was step-by-step instruction by Assistant Superintendent Luis Pagan on how to cheat on state standardized tests.
Carruth's allegations highlight the pressures on teachers and administrators to prove that their programs are effective. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, districts can face sanctions, including state takeover, if schools don't improve.
Carruth said he wanted to make it clear that his students had done nothing wrong. "It's adults doing things they shouldn't be doing," he said.
The state Department of Education last month began investigating Carruth's allegations. It also is examining 2005 test scores at Camden elementary schools after questions raised by The Inquirer about unusually high scores at several schools. At Brimm, more than 91 percent were proficient in 11th-grade math, a 21-point gain.
District officials have vigorously denied Carruth's account, or that there were irregularities in test scores.
Reached at his Medford Township home Friday night, Pagan reiterated what he had previously told The Inquirer: He never had a conversation with Carruth about rigging test scores.
"There's nothing I have to say. The time will come for comment," Pagan said.
Superintendent Annette Knox, who has steadfastly defended the district's test results, declined to comment.
Carruth, a former math teacher who started his career in the district 13 years ago, said it wasn't the first time a superior in Camden had suggested cheating to him.
While he was working at Yorkship Elementary in the mid-1990s, an advance copy of a standardized test was placed in his mailbox, but he ignored it.
"If I did it last year, how could I not do it this year?" he said. "Now I'd be under their thumb. So you might have to do it your whole career. When do you redeem yourself?"
Friends and former colleagues described Carruth, 38, as an ethical man raised by middle-class parents in Lawnside. His mother was a longtime elementary school teacher.
"He was always polite, always a gentleman," said retired Camden principal Therese Marlin, who worked with him for several years. "He was a good teacher."
Said former school board member Dwaine Williams: "I believe that Joe Carruth is genuinely telling the truth and he has no other motivation than to tell truth."
Most of all, Carruth said he wanted to ensure that no one thought less of the students and teachers at Brimm, considered the top school in a district deemed failing by the state because of low test scores.
During a three-hour interview Thursday, Carruth recalled the details of the Jan. 21, 2005, meeting in Pagan's office. They met to discuss Carruth's first evaluation since becoming Brimm's principal in July 1, 2004.
According to Carruth, Pagan began reading the evaluation aloud. Carruth said Pagan left the room for 10 minutes, came back and closed the door. "That caught my attention."
Pagan, Carruth said, then asked about his daughter, who was a year old. She has a severe digestive condition that is being treated with a feeding tube.
" 'So, he said, 'I guess you're going to need your benefits,' " Carruth recalled. "He said, 'You know, Joe, what do you think would happen if your kids' test results went down?... You'd lose your job."
Brimm's language-arts scores had dropped three percentage points in 2003. Carruth said he was told by Pagan that math scores could not fall.
Carruth said Pagan told him that the previous acting principal, Frederick Clayton, had not let scores go down.
Carruth said Pagan told him that he would get the High School Proficiency Assessment tests two weeks before the exam would be given to 11th graders.
After the tests were counted and secured by a school official, Carruth said, Pagan told him to use a razor to slice open a test. He was told to devise an answer key that could be used later to check students' responses, he said.
Next, he was told to make three lists: students likely to fail, those likely to pass, and those in between, he said. At least 50 students needed to pass, he said. Sixty students took the test.
After the students took the test, Carruth said, he was then to "work on" their tests with his answer key. Carruth, a doctoral candidate, has a bachelor's degree in economics.
Carruth said he was stunned.
"He never asked me, 'Can I count on you?' He just said it as if I would do it."
Over the next few days, Carruth told several colleagues of his meeting with Pagan, including Paula Veggian, Brimm's scheduler.
Veggian confirmed to her lawyer, Morris Smith, that Carruth told her of the alleged cheating scheme within days of that Jan. 21 meeting, Smith said.
Earlier that same month, Veggian had filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit against the district, alleging that Clayton, the former acting principal and guidance counselor, had altered grades, and that the district attempted to retaliate against her for disclosing the matter.
Clayton, who was suspended with pay by the school board in November 2004 for unspecified reasons, declined to comment Friday.
When the tests arrived Feb. 14, three weeks after their meeting, Carruth said Pagan called him. " 'Can I count on you?' " Carruth said Pagan asked.
"I said, 'To do what we discussed in your office?' I said no."
Carruth said he received a "scathing" evaluation from Pagan three days later - criticizing him for allegedly failing to arrange for students to meet with health-care professionals.
"This behavior is a reflection of your inability to plan, coordinate and manage your responsibilities as the administrator in charge of your school," Pagan wrote in the memo, which was obtained by The Inquirer.
(Pagan and Carruth have an evaluation meeting scheduled for tomorrow.)
Carruth said he was "nervous," because as a first-year principal he did not have tenure. His wife advised him to call a lawyer.
Carruth said he contacted School Board President Philip E. Freeman and later sent him a letter asking to speak to the board. Freeman said Thursday that Carruth did not tell him about being pressured to cheat. The board last week hired former Camden County Prosecutor Edward Borden to investigate Carruth's allegation and a test security breach at Sumner Elementary School.
Carruth took his allegations to Camden County prosecutors last March. Investigators already looking into the grade-changing allegations at Brimm began probing Carruth's allegations against Pagan.
Carruth said he gave a sworn statement to criminal investigators and wore a tape recorder in his lab-coat pocket at their request during a meeting with Pagan. The tape recorded nothing incriminating, Carruth said, and officials confirmed.
When the 2005 test scores came back, Carruth said, he was suspicious of a substantial increase in test scores, fearing that someone had tinkered with the tests after they left Brimm and were taken to the central office.
More than 91 percent were found proficient or higher in the math portion, a 21-point gain over the 2004 results.
Carruth said he did not hear back from the prosecutor's office. He became concerned when the 2006 batch of tests arrived in February and nothing seemed to have happened with his allegations about Pagan.
So Carruth took his complaint to the state Department of Education.
State education officials began an investigation into Carruth's allegations. About the same time, the state opened a probe of test results at other schools, sparked by questions raised by The Inquirer about scores at H.B. Wilson and U.S. Wiggins - Camden elementary schools that achieved some of the highest math scores in the state. That investigation has expanded to include 12 schools outside Camden.
Thurselle Treece, who preceded Carruth as a vice principal at Brimm, said she was not asked to rig state tests, but she witnessed grade changing - the same allegations made by Veggian in her lawsuit. Treece was assigned at Brimm from April to July 2004.
Treece, now a principal at the city's Pyne Poynt Middle School, said she notified top administrators and the school board about the grade changes. "It just appeared that they didn't want to hear anything about my concerns."
Carruth and other principals who asked that their names not be used said they were under intense demands to increase math and language-arts scores. They said Knox had told them at principals meetings that their job-performance evaluations were largely based on meeting test goals.
"People are under pressure, especially the new principals," said a veteran educator who requested anonymity.
Carruth's evaluations, obtained by The Inquirer, show the priority placed on test results. In a January 2005 evaluation, Pagan told Carruth to focus on meeting proficiency standards for math and language arts to meet the adequate yearly progress goals required under No Child Left Behind.
"Your school has always done very well in these two areas, you must continue to show this degree of success," Pagan wrote.
"Show your progress, celebrate your success and do not dwell on deficiencies. Student performance must continue to increase and actions must be taken to address any identified needs. There is no choice for this action."
Carruth said he came forward because he wanted it known that the allegations should not be seen as a reflection of his students. At the recent 25th Annual Coriell Institute Science Fair, Brimm students captured first place in five categories.
"They are wondering if the colleges are going to look at them," Carruth said of the seniors. "I try to tell them nobody in the school did anything wrong. It's not the students, it's not the teachers. Don't feel ashamed of yourselves."
Personal:Raised in Lawnside. Graduate of Haddon Heights High School. Lives in Delaware with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter.
Degrees: Undergraduate, Rutgers University. Master's, Cheyney University. Carries an A average in a doctoral program at Wilmington College, according to the college.
Career: Began teaching in the Camden School District in early 1990s. Assistant principal in the Palmyra District and Highland Regional High School in Blackwood. Hired as principal of Charles Brimm Medical Arts High in Camden on July 1, 2004.
For excerpts from
See the Inquirer's exclusive interview with Joseph Carruth.
For articles on the Camden schools test score investigation.
Melanie Burney, Frank Kummer and Dwight Ott
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES