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

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011

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.


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