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Rhee faces renewed scrutiny over depiction of students' progress when she taught

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 8:52 PM

Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, known for her crusade to use standardized test scores to help evaluate teachers, is facing renewed scrutiny over her depiction of progress that her students made years ago when she was a schoolteacher.

A former D.C. math teacher, Guy Brandenburg, posted on his blog a study that includes test scores from the Baltimore school where Rhee taught from 1992 to 1995. The post, dated Jan. 31, generated intense discussion in education circles this week. In it, Brandenburg contended that the data show Rhee "lied repeatedly" in an effort to make gains in her class look more impressive than they were.

Rhee, who resigned last year as chancellor, denied fabricating anything about her record and said Brandenburg's conclusion was unfounded. But she acknowledged this week that she could have described her accomplishments differently in 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) selected her to be chancellor.

At issue is a line in Rhee's resume from that year that described her record at Harlem Park Elementary School: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher."

On Wednesday evening, Rhee said she would revise that wording if she could. "If I were to put my resume forward again, would I say 'significant' gains?" Rhee said. "Absolutely."

Rhee's record is of more than historical interest to many teachers who are skeptical of her brand of school reform and say test scores are an unreliable gauge of performance.

As chancellor, Rhee made growth in test scores a key metric for measuring the effectiveness of educators. Achievement trends factored into decisions about whether to fire principals. Many teachers were rated in part on whether their students gained or stagnated on test scores in reading and math. Those with poor evaluations under the system Rhee called IMPACT faced possible dismissal.

The study Brandenburg posted, published in 1995 by researchers with the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Towson University, is stored in an online federal archive. It drew a small amount of attention in 2007. Now it is getting a fresh look.

The study found modest, uneven gains in various grade levels at the school in a review of results from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. There were no separate results for Rhee or any other Harlem Park teacher. The study also noted that many students at the struggling Baltimore school were not tested.

But the results were presented in enough detail to raise questions about whether any single class could have made strides of the magnitude Rhee depicted on her resume.

Rhee said she taught second grade for two years, then third grade in 1994-95. In that year, Rhee said, her class made a major leap in achievement.

The study found that third-graders overall at the school made gains that year in reading and math. But they finished nowhere near the 90th percentile.

The reading scores, when converted to percentile rankings, indicate that students moved from about the 14th percentile as second-graders in 1993-94 to the 46th or 47th percentile as third-graders the next year.

The math scores for the same span suggest movement from the 37th percentile to the 53rd or 54th. (Percentiles are used to compare student performance. A student at the 50th percentile would have scored higher than half of all students tested and lower than the other half.)

The study found that the number of students tested varied each year, injecting another element of uncertainty.

Rhee addressed questions about her resume in 2007. At the time, she acknowledged that there was no documentation to back up the assertion of performance at the 90th percentile. She said then that the source of the information was the school's principal, Linda Carter.

In 2007, Carter and others connected with the school corroborated Rhee's account in general terms without citing specific figures. A Baltimore schools spokeswoman said Thursday that Carter no longer works for the system. Efforts to reach the former principal were unsuccessful. On Wednesday, Rhee reiterated what she had said in 2007. "All I can go off of is what my principal told me," she said.

Brandenburg, who retired in 2009 after teaching for more than 30 years, said the study presents "clear evidence of actual, knowing falsehood" by Rhee.

Frederick M. Hess, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, disagreed. "There's simply no way with these data to say anything, good or bad, about Rhee's teaching performance," he wrote in a blog post Thursday.

Staff writer Bill Turque contributed to this report.

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