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Posted at 06:12 PM ET, 04/10/2011

Exposing a Blue Ribbon School

After briefly trying to brush off suggestions that recent test score gains are fraudulent, the D.C. public schools have adopted the right attitude about massive and mysterious wrong-to-right erasures of answers on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests.

Acting Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked the D.C. inspector general to investigate. Members of the D.C. State Board of Education want a deep probe.

So why haven’t we heard a peep from another important player in this whodunit, the U.S. Department of Education? That federal agency has said nothing about the shadow cast on the Blue Ribbon School award it presented in 2009 to the Noyes Education Campus, which has one of the most egregious records of wrong answers being changed to right.

What about it, Education Secretary Arne Duncan? Will you take back that blue ribbon if investigators prove it was awarded for illegitimate scores? What about the blue ribbon school in Baltimore where cheating was proven and the blue ribbon school in Atlanta where it is strongly suspected?

Elizabeth Utrup, a department spokeswoman, told me there will be no decisions without “a clear conclusion to an investigation.”

No other school prize has the luster of the 29-year-old Blue Ribbon program. Blue Ribbon schools celebrate the award with news conferences, banners and plaques. Their principals get big career boosts.

That is what happened to Wayne Ryan, principal of Noyes, when it won the blue ribbon in 2009.

As reported by USA Today, which exposed the rash of test answer erasures, Noyes went from 10 percent to 58 percent of its students scoring proficient or advanced on the DC-CAS from 2006 to 2008. One Noyes third-grade reading class averaged 8.6 wrong-to-right erasures per child in 2008. Because of those gains, the school won the blue ribbon. In 2008 and 2010, each teacher at Noyes won an $8,000 cash award and Ryan got $10,000 under a D.C. schools incentive program.

My wife, Linda Mathews, recently retired as senior projects editor at USA Today, conceived and supervised the erasure investigation, so I have a bias. But I think the opportunity for abuse of the tests in D.C. is obvious because of the erasures and lax security. In one seventh-grade reading class at Noyes in 2009 the average was 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per kid.

One principal, who asked that I not use her name so she can keep her job, told me it would be easy for a teacher or a principal to see in advance the DC-CAS tests being given now. The seal is just a small white dot. Break the seal, read the questions and prep your students. Then give the compromised booklet to the sort of kid who wouldn’t notice and wouldn’t care.

I doubt teachers cheated here. More likely, given the large number of erasures, administrators changed the answers after the students went home. The principal said the reading and math tests completed at her school last week are not scheduled to be picked up until this week. I have asked many experts how 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per child could happen in an innocent way. Students rarely go back to change many answers, and if they do they are often wrong. No one has a good explanation for the D.C. erasures — other than adults cheating.

Some D.C. officials still don’t see this. At a meeting last week of the D.C. State Board of Education, Office of the State Superintendent of Education official Tamara Reavis said, “I feel very confident that we are following best practices.” Board members were more skeptical. Ward 1 representative Patrick Mara asked if a principal “couldn’t go in at 3 a.m. and mess around with the test.”

Exactly. If students are not interviewed, if their parents are not alerted about test irregularities, if students’ past and future scores are not compared to their erasure-ridden scores, if the Education Department doesn’t at least rethink that blue ribbon, this will happen again and the future of the D.C. schools will be bleak.

By  |  06:12 PM ET, 04/10/2011

 
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