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Posted at 04:39 PM ET, 03/30/2011

Subpoena everyone in D.C. cheating scandal -- including Rhee

One surefire way to learn whether a D.C. public school that made big gains when Michelle Rhee was chancellor actually cheated — a possibility raised by a newspaper investigation -- is to subpoena everybody in D.C. with potential involvement or knowledge and have them testify under oath. That includes Rhee.

An investigation published this week by USA Today brought new focus to previous concerns about erasures on standardized tests at D.C. schools. USA Today mentioned there were erasures that were flagged as outside the norm at 103 schools at least once since 2008 but it focused on one, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, where big gains on tests were reported during the Rhee era.

The newspaper obtained documents and data through the Freedom of Information Act and discovered an unusually high number of erasures at Noyes, with a “consistent pattern” of wrong answers being erased and the right answers being marked in.

Six out of eight classes taking the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test in 2007-08 were initially cited by CTB/McGraw-Hill, the testing company used by D.C. schools, as having higher-than-average erasures that turned wrong answers into the right ones, USA Today said. Then, in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the same pattern was reported by McGraw-Hill, which cited 80 percent of the classrooms at Noyes.

My colleague Bill Turque wrote back in 2009 about an investigation into possible cheating at 26 public and public charter schools where reading and math scores had shot up in 2008. The Rhee administration never got to the bottom of the allegations then.

Now USA Today has looked hard at subsequent years, drilling down into the data and interviewing some D.C. officials, but only some: Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson would not allow the newspaper to interview Wayne Ryan, who had been principal at Noyes when the tests inspected by USA Today were taken and is now instructional superintendent.

Henderson was Rhee’s deputy, and was recently tapped by Mayor Vincent Gray as his choice as Rhee’s successor; her approval by the D.C. Council is a foregone conclusion, at least at the moment.

Henderson repeatedly said on Monday that no cheating occurred, but then, on Tuesday, she asked the D.C. inspector general to investigate the controversy.

Rhee, as is her wont, shot from the hip when she heard about the USA Today story, attacking is as an assault on school reform, as if her brand is the only one tried and true. She said in a Monday statement: “It isn’t surprising that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat....”

The “enemies of school reform?” She really is a warrior woman, just as Oprah Winfrey described her last year when Rhee was welcomed on Winfrey’s show as a huge star.

Today, though, she called my colleague Jay Mathews to say that her remarks were “stupid” and that the erasures should be thoroughly investigated.

Well, yeah.

None of this, of course, proves that adults took the answer sheets from the kids, erased wrong answers and scribbled in the right ones so that the school would look good to Rhee.

But there is a way to find out: Subpoena everyone in the District who had potential involvement or knowledge of what happened. That includes Rhee and Henderson and Ryan and Michael Moody, who had served as special advisor to Rhee on academics, and the adults at Noyes.

There isn’t always fire where there is smoke, but, it’s time D.C. officials found out.

It’s important not only because Rhee has become a national education celebrity largely but not entirely based on her record of improving test scores in the District, and because she has enormous influence among policymakers. She was, after all, chosen from all of the school leaders in the country to be the star of “ Waiting for Superman.

Standardized tests have become the currency of modern school reform across the country, used to grade students, schools and teachers. Somehow reformers have got it into their heads that high-stakes standardized tests measure real learning. Assessment experts say they don’t.

Cheating scandals have been reported across the country ever since former president George Bush’s No Child Left Behind law ushered in the era of high-stakes testing. It is not exculpatory to say that the high stakes of the tests drove some teachers and principals to cheat, but it is explanatory. Such behavior won’t go away as long as standardized tests are used in high-stakes ways they never were designed to be used.

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By  |  04:39 PM ET, 03/30/2011

 
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