Adell Cothorne was principal of the District’s Noyes Education Campus for one year, in 2010-11. She told “Frontline” that just after students took a midyear practice version of the city’s annual standardized test, she stumbled upon three staff members sitting late at night in a room strewn with more than 200 test booklets.
One of the adults was at a desk, holding an eraser. The other two sat at a table, booklets open before them.
“One staff member said to me, in a lighthearted sort of way, ‘Oh, principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it,’ ” Cothorne told filmmakers, offering the first such direct testimony about potential tampering with answer sheets in D.C. schools.
Cothorne told “Frontline” that she reported the incident to the central office, but to her knowledge nothing was done. School system officials said Friday that without having seen the documentary, they could not comment on Cothorne’s allegations.
“Broadly speaking, reports about testing impropriety are taken very seriously,” D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz wrote in an e-mail. “We have investigated and taken appropriate action for every instance reported to us.”
The “Frontline” film, by education reporter John Merrow, examines Rhee’s record in the District, where her aggressive reforms between 2007 and 2010 turned her from a relative unknown into a polarizing edu-celebrity, both applauded and criticized for her unapologetic approach to fixing the District’s long-troubled schools.
Much of the film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” draws on footage previously broadcast in a dozen of Merrow’s “PBS NewsHour” reports. It chronicles the failings of the school system and the chancellor’s efforts to turn it around by closing schools with low enrollment and firing ineffective teachers, principals and central office workers.
In one well-known scene, Rhee fires a principal on tape, telling him in front of the film crew that his leadership had been “completely unimpressive.”
“This is not about giving people jobs, or ensuring that people can maintain their jobs. This is about educating children,” Rhee told Merrow, voicing the no-excuses approach to school reform — and the impatience with the city’s dismal academic results — that won her admiration around the country.
One of Rhee’s signature moves was turning the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, the city’s annual standardized test, into a high-stakes event for teachers and principals. For the first time, their jobs and their pay depended upon raising student scores.