But in 2011, USA Today published an investigation that raised questions about the validity of the District’s test scores — and, by proxy, about the effectiveness of Rhee’s reforms.
The newspaper’s report revealed an unusually high number of wrong-to-right erasures on students’ answer sheets at more than 100 D.C. schools between 2008 and 2010. Such erasure rates aren’t proof of cheating, but they are signals of potential tampering.
Current Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby to investigate further. Willoughby reported in August that he’d found no evidence of answer-sheet tampering, a conclusion that Henderson said should finally put cheating allegations to rest.
The “Frontline” documentary, however, suggests the inspector general’s investigation may have been incomplete.
The 17-month probe focused on just one school: Noyes, which was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2009 after students made impressive gains on reading and math tests. It also twice won an award from Rhee that brought cash bonuses for staff, and it had some of the highest erasure rates in the city.
Investigators found some test-security problems at Noyes but no evidence of answer-sheeting tampering. Based on those findings, they decided not to examine other schools.
But Cothorne, the former principal who alleges that she saw staff members after hours with erasers and test booklets, said investigators never interviewed her.
“My speculation: They didn’t want to hear what I had to say,” she told “Frontline.”
The inspector general’s office declined “Frontline’s” request for an interview about its investigation, saying the report speaks for itself. The office also declined The Post’s request for comment Friday.
DCPS spokeswoman Salmanowitz said school officials remain confident in the inspector general’s work.
Salmanowitz also said records show that Cothorne did not mention the incident when she was interviewed in March 2011 by Caveon, a company retained by the school system to examine potential cheating over several years.
Cothorne denied that she was interviewed by Caveon, but said as a new principal in D.C. schools, she was scared about speaking up.
Cothorne told the “Frontline” filmmakers that when she arrived at Noyes in 2010, she noticed that students’ academic abilities didn’t match their test scores.
Then she said she found the three staff members with test booklets from the midyear D.C. Benchmark Assessment System, a standardized exam that tracks students’ progress toward the end-of-year test — the one that matters for teachers’ and principals’ jobs.
Why would a teacher be motivated to inflate practice-test scores? Perhaps to make high end-of-year scores more believable, Cothorne said in an interview Friday.
Cothorne told “Frontline” that she tightened test security. On the end-of-the-year test, math and reading scores dropped more than 25 percentage points from the year before. The principal left Noyes at the end of that school year and opened a cupcake shop in Ellicott City.
Several other D.C. schools that made impressive test-score gains under Rhee saw double-digit declines after test security was tightened.
Asked for her reaction, Rhee told Merrow that such large swings should be investigated. There may have been some problems, she allowed — but they were isolated.
“I can point to . . . dozens and dozens of schools where, you know, they saw very steady gains,” Rhee said, “or even saw some dramatic gains that were maintained.”
She told Merrow that she was sorry to leave the District.
“I lost the job that I loved,” she said. “The work that we’re doing right now with Students First is important. Would I rather be in D.C. as the chancellor? Absolutely.”