No Evidence That Probe of Possible Cheating Was Pursued at Some D.C. Schools

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 2009

Despite two requests from the District's Office of the State Superintendent of Education, D.C. public school officials never provided evidence that they investigated possible cheating at some schools after an analysis showed high rates of erasures on standardized tests in 2008, according to newly released documents.

The analysis was commissioned last summer by then-State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist after more than 20 public and public charter schools showed gains of 20 points or more in reading or math proficiency on D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) tests.

The study of student answer sheets, conducted by the test's publisher, CTB McGraw-Hill, eventually "flagged" classrooms in more than 40 schools because the number of wrong answers changed to right answers was significantly above the citywide average.

On Friday, The Washington Post obtained documents related to the investigation through the Freedom of Information Act. But despite repeated requests for a full copy of the study, District officials released only summaries and correspondence describing the analysis.

Two e-mail messages sent Friday to Victor Reinoso, who as deputy mayor for education oversees the superintendent's office, were not answered.

The high-stakes tests are used by the federal government to assess the yearly academic progress of schools under the No Child Left Behind law. The results from the 2007-08 academic year, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's first full year in office, were touted by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as evidence of early progress in her efforts -- closely watched by urban education reform advocates nationwide -- to transform the struggling 45,000-student system.

The percentage of public elementary students demonstrating proficiency rose an average of 11 points in math and eight points in reading; among public secondary students, the percentages increased by nine points in reading and math. Teachers and administrators at public schools received cash awards if proficiency levels increased by 20 points or more in both reading and math.

Gist, who resigned April 1 to become Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education, was concerned about the validity of the huge increases at some schools.

The superintendent's office does not have authority over school operations, but it oversees administration of the DC-CAS and has the power to invalidate student scores and to fine schools if it determines that test security has been compromised.

However, it relies on the schools themselves to report evidence of cheating. In an unrelated case this past spring, Howard Road Academy, a public charter school in Southeast Washington, fired two teachers and disallowed the 2009 scores of 27 fourth- and sixth-graders after school staff members discovered that copies of the test were distributed before testing day.

A spreadsheet summary of the CTB McGraw-Hill study shows that Bowen Elementary in Southwest Washington was one of schools where test results improved dramatically in 2008. The percentage of children showing proficiency in reading grew by 27 points, from 36.2 to 63.2 percent. The 34 students in one class averaged more than 10 wrong-to-right erasures on the exam. The citywide average for wrong-to-right erasures on the reading test in elementary grades was between 1.4 and 2.3, according District officials.

Some schools with only modest gains in 2008 also had high rates of wrong-to-right erasures. At Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Parkview in Northwest, where the reading proficiency level edged up from 40.5 to 42.5, the 17 students in one third-grade class had 223 wrong-to-right erasures, an average of 13 per student.

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