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Test erasures? What test erasures?

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The biggest cheating scandal in the D.C. schools began March 28, 2011, with this headline in USA Today: “When test scores soared in D.C., were the gains real?” The newspaper revealed that over three years, more than 103 D.C. schools had unusual wrong-to-right erasure rates on annual tests, a possible sign of tampering. Administrators and teachers at some of those schools got big cash bonuses for their students’ improved scores. (Full disclose: My wife, Linda, conceived and edited the USA Today series that exposed the scope of the D.C. erasures.)

D.C. school leaders have now released the results of the second independent investigation of the scandal. (We are still waiting for a third probe by the D.C. Inspector General.) Once again we are not told who made those erasures, or why, on the annual D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Instead we learn that one teacher at King Elementary School and another at the Langdon Education Campus will probably be dismissed for helping students with their answers on the 2011 test, similar to last year’s finding of illicit help to students at three other schools.

What about all those erasures? D.C. schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson seems uninterested in the question. “I am pleased that this investigation is complete and that the vast majority of our schools were cleared of any wrongdoing,” she said.

I have been a reporter for 45 years. I have seen many cover-ups. This looks like one to me, and to many educators I have spoken to. D.C. officials have never investigated in any depth the wrong-to-right erasures that the District’s testing company began reporting in 2008.

I asked Henderson if, as a veteran classroom teacher, she could provide any innocent explanation for children in some classrooms changing on average 10 wrong answers to right ones. She said a child might have skipped over a page in the test, gotten her answers out of sequence and gone back later to fix them. I am having trouble finding anyone else who accepts that theory.

When a reporter asked why the new probe by the consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal ignored evidence of wrong-to-right erasures before 2010, Cate Swinburn, chief of data and accountability for the D.C. schools, said it would have been difficult to gather information that far back. But it is D.C. officials who wrote the rules so a wider probe could not take place.

Alvarez & Marsal made no mention of asking students about erasures. They interviewed 80 students across the District, apparently only two or three at any one school. They asked students, with a school staff member present, if they had cheated on any tests or knew who did, which is not the issue.

No students were questioned in an initial investigation by the Caveon consulting company. It seems to me that if any investigators had taken seriously the possibility that principals or test coordinators had changed answers after the students handed in their answer sheets, the most likely explanation to the educators I have consulted, it would have helped to determine whether students with many changes on their sheets remembered making them. Instead, principals remain blameless. The only dismissals have been of teachers who apparently did nothing to the answer sheets.

Generally, students make few if any changes on D.C. exam sheets. There is little incentive for them to check their work. Their scores can affect how teachers and principals are rated but do not affect their own report cards. Swinburn suggested that wrong-to-right erasures might have been caused by students first marking tentative answers, then going back to rethink them as teachers often recommend. That also is unlikely to happen with the frequency shown by the erasure reports, other D.C. educators tell me.

The failure to do the kind of thorough inquiry that revealed massive test tampering by principals and teachers in Atlanta after high numbers of erasures will leave many people here in doubt. The latest investigation, which cost $400,000, has done the children of D.C. no good.

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