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USA Today: Possible testing fraud under Rhee in DC (UPDATED)

March 28, 2011

“Our decisions at all levels must be guided by robust data.” -DC Public Schools, Core Beliefs

USA Today recently published an article about their investigation of reported testing irregularities in the DC Public Schools. Independent statisticians and testing experts cited in the investigation find that wrong-to-right-answer erasure patterns in DC schools like the celebrated Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus are too frequent and systematic to have happened by chance. Such patterns have to be four standard deviations above normal to even trigger a flag from the testing companies.

For example, from 2006 onward, between 75% and 80% of Noyes’ classrooms were flagged for unusually high rates of erasures, where wrong answers were changed to correct ones. In one Noyes classroom, seventh graders averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right conversions; the average DC seventh grader had less than one such change. Statisticians say the possibility of erasure rates as high as these happening purely by chance was less likely than “winning the Powerball grand prize.”

I urge everyone to read the full USA Today story as well as the documents from their investigation (I’ll be writing more about that sometime this week). As you do, keep two things in mind:

  1. Michelle Rhee and others higher-ups in the DC school system have elevated test score Data to an insane degree. They’ve expanded their careers– and ended others’ careers– on the basis of the gains they claim to have made. If all decisions in DCPS are to be guided by “robust data,” shouldn’t there be a robust system in place for ensuring transparency, propriety, and accountability in the administration and scoring of the tests that generate that data? And shouldn’t there be the same kind of accountability for those who might have tampered with such important information as there is for those who fall short by these (questionable?) measures?
  2. DC’s mayoral control system has essentially eliminated the possibility for independent oversight of district behavior. When these problems first surfaced, investigators noted that they experienced significant push-back from high-level district officials– which is to be expected given how invested they all were in the appearance of immediate, significant success. From the USA Today article:

When D.C. administrators resisted investigating the 2008 scores, there was no counterweight to force the issue. The state board is empowered only to advise OSSE. Mary Lord, a board member with a teenager who attends a D.C. high school, is critical of the decision not to investigate the 2008 scores. “If you are going to add all this weight” to testing, “hanging the principals’ reputations … and the teachers’ pay on it, you have to make sure it is totally accurate,” Lord says.

Board members say that, like parents, they have been kept in the dark about testing irregularities. The state board wasn’t aware, Lord says, of the dispute between the superintendent’s office and Rhee until its members saw reports in TheWashington Post in the fall of 2009. She says she did not see the erasure analysis or the lists of schools flagged by McGraw-Hill until USA TODAY shared its copies.

After Rhee gave bonuses to educators in some schools that posted big gains in test scores in 2007 and 2008, there was little incentive to examine those scores, Lord says. “You’ve handed out these big bonuses. What are you going to do? Take them back?” she says. “It’s a bombshell. It’s embarrassing.”

Those who advocate for mayoral control often say they’re interested in speeding up the pace of change in struggling schools; they find that the democratic process slows that down. But the primary reason for having school boards and other oversight mechanisms is to ensure that everything is happening in a manner that is above-board, and in the students’ and community’s best interests. This is yet another example of why it’s so crucial to have that kind of oversight– and why “reform at 100 miles per hour” isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

Relevant links:

UPDATE: Tavis Smiley interviewed Rhee about the story today. She denies everything, saying that the third-party investigations were thorough and found no evidence of wrong-doing. (I wonder how the investigation would have turned out if people hadn’t been questioned in their bosses’ presence, or if they hadn’t received a share of $1.5 million in bonuses…) I’m looking forward to the rest of their conversation tomorrow night; I’m especially interested to see if/how she tries to explain away the suspicions of parents who claim their children’s academic performance at home didn’t match the scores they got on the tests.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. rick mangone permalink
    March 28, 2011 11:35 am

    This is happening everywhere the ed reformers are forcing high stakes testing. When you place so much emphasis on tests the result is more tampering and cheating as school communities fight for survival. In New York the results are obvious when you correlate the number of students who receive high school diplomas who then need remedial courses when they enter college. The number needing remedial courses are at an all time high especially in the community colleges of CUNY. This is the result of Rhee, Klein and the other self proclaimed leaders of the education reform movement.

  2. Rich T. permalink
    March 28, 2011 2:01 pm

    Check out for more of Michelle Rhee’s lies and misrepresentations!

  3. Michael Fiorillo permalink
    March 28, 2011 3:51 pm

    Rhee has lied about test score results, whether her own or those of the district, for years. She needs to be relentlessly exposed, while her adjutant and successor Henderson needs to investigated for her role, as well.

    As for corporate ed deformers in general, everything they say is a lie, including the words “and” and “the.”

  4. March 29, 2011 11:15 am

    I hope that this story gets widely reported and allows more balanced coverage on what high-stakes testing is doing for learning, teaching and our school communities. I’m endlessly amazed by the fact-free claims and misrepresentations Ms. Rhee and her fellow deformers get away with, though – I wonder if this will have any effect.

    Ms. Rhee’s tactics for avoiding these discussions – cluelessness (“no one told me! I was just the Chancellor, not the data person!”), platitudes (“NO EXCUSES! INSULTING CHILDREN!”) and outright lies really make me angry. She’s been able to avoid any actual discussion (or even being minimally polite) for way too long.

  5. April 3, 2011 10:36 am

    I have a question for the teachers on this blog. It seems obvious that the kids did not do this. I really don’t want to believe that teachers did, though under Rhee’s system I could see where they would be incentivized to so out of fear for their jobs. Could it have been teachers? Or is it more likely to have been administrators? The only logical conclusion in my mind is that this was systematically done by adults; I’m just curious to know what you guys think.

    • April 3, 2011 11:30 am

      I think it was the adults as well. The article has a list of the numbers and percentages of classrooms in the affected schools that showed high rates of erasures. My theory is that in the schools where there are just a few classrooms, it was a rogue teacher or two changing scores. In the schools where the majority to all classrooms have them– and there are a STUNNING number of schools in that category– I think an administrator probably pressures teachers to do it.

      That said, while this behavior us absolutely shameful, it’s not surprising given the circumstances.

  6. frank k permalink
    April 13, 2011 1:11 pm

    Just as the No Child Left Behind’s basis on Texas’ ed scores was exposed as a fraud on”60 Minutes” did nothing to change the minds of so-called education reformers, neither will this Rhee exposé. Unfortunate, to say the least!


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