Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee decided against further investigation of the erasures. D.C. State Superintendent of Education Kerri L. Briggs made that decision.

Erasures on D.C. Tests Apparently Concentrated in Six Schools

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bowen Elementary was part of what District officials hailed as the success story of their 2008 standardized test results.

The reading proficiency rate at the small school near the District's Southwest waterfront jumped 27 points, to 63 percent of the student population. The math score surged 17 points, to 41 percent. Public elementary school scores citywide rose an average of 11 points in math and eight points in reading, a hopeful sign of improvement in Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's first year on the job.

But Bowen also had four classrooms where children erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones at abnormally high rates. Although fifth-graders across the District averaged slightly fewer than two wrong-to-right erasures on the math exam, one class at Bowen averaged just over 11, according to an analysis by CTB McGraw-Hill, publisher of the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS).

Forty-five of Washington's 150 public schools had at least one classroom with an elevated erasure level in 2008, according to the analysis, disclosed by District officials this month. A closer examination of the data shows that suspicious erasures were most heavily concentrated in third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms at a half-dozen schools: Aiton Elementary (seven classrooms); Marie Reed Elementary (six); Takoma Education Campus (five); Langdon Education Campus (four); J.O. Wilson Elementary (four); and Bowen. Five of the schools made gains that exceeded citywide averages. Langdon's scores held relatively steady.

In some cases, the "flagged" classrooms represent the vast majority of students who took the exams in April 2008 in those schools. At Aiton, where reading proficiency doubled to 60 percent and math proficiency more than tripled, the seven classrooms included 136 of the 154 students who took the DC-CAS. At Marie Reed, 121 of the 158 test-taking students were in high-erasure classrooms. At Takoma, it was 92 of 168.

In all, elevated numbers of erasures at the six schools involved classrooms with 573 students. More than 44,300 students attend District public schools, but only students in grades three through eight and 10 take the test.

CTB McGraw-Hill declared the data "inconclusive," and no teachers or administrators have been accused of wrongdoing.

Former D.C. state superintendent of education Deborah A. Gist, who ordered the analysis last year after seeing huge jumps in proficiency rates at some schools, asked Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to investigate further. Citing the CTB McGraw-Hill's characterization of the findings, Rhee decided against a closer look.

The stakes surrounding standardized tests have never been higher. Schools that consistently fail to meet federal targets for reading and math scores are subject to sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law. They can include the wholesale replacement of the teaching staff, hiring of an outside organization to run the school, or closure. Officials also have created incentives for schools to post big numbers, including cash awards. Last year, teachers and administrators at seven District public schools, including Aiton, collected $1.5 million in prize money, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, for test score gains.

Most of the 30 teachers and principals who worked at the schools with large numbers of erasures in 2008 and who could be located declined to comment or did not respond to phone and e-mail messages. Those willing to speak said they could not account for the numerous erasures. Some attributed them to constant reminders to students to review their answers carefully before handing in the untimed test.

Edith Blackwood, whose 22 fifth-graders at Bowen averaged 11 wrong-to-right erasures on the math exams, said she did not offer inappropriate help to students. She worked with them for months, as many teachers did to prepare for the high-stakes exams, she said. But nothing more.

"I have a clear conscience," she said. "I have no idea how this could be."

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