Nearly 4,000 D.C. schoolteachers, parents and others have signed a petition urging federal officials to investigate suspicions about potential cheating on standardized tests during the tenure of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Petition organizers say they have multiple goals: First, to find out what really happened and, if anything, who was responsible, at schools where cheating may have occurred. Second, to reveal the culture that may be at the root of the alleged troubles.

The request for federal involvement by more than 3,700 petition signers follows a USA Today report in March about possible cheating on standardized tests at D.C. schools.

The newspaper found that from 2008 through 2010, there were unusually high rates of answer changes at 103 schools, with wrong answers erased and right ones penciled in.

The newspaper stories provided details about Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, which saw big test score gains under Rhee and which she liked to trumpet as proof of the success of her reforms.

Six of eight classes taking the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test in 2007-08 were initially cited by CTB/McGraw-Hill, the testing company used by D.C. schools, as having higher-than-average erasures that turned wrong answers into right ones, USA Today said. Then, in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the same pattern was reported by McGraw-Hill, which cited 80 percent of the classrooms at Noyes. USA Today also reported on the petition.

The issue has resonance beyond the District; Rhee is a national education celebrity who has based her educational reputation largely on improving test scores in the District, and she has enormous influence with state and federal policymakers.

Rhee’s former deputy, Acting Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, has asked the D.C. inspector general to investigate, but D.C. activists want probes to be launched by either the congressional Government Accountability Office, which has jurisdiction over Washington, D.C., or the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general.

The petition asks for a federal probe that includes:

*Sworn, public testimony from principals, administrators and the former and current district and state leadership;

*Forensic analysis of student scores compared to other measures of what students know; and

*An exploration of what petitioners call a test-obsessed culture in the district and its effects.

D.C. school officials have been less than eager to get to the bottom of the cheating suspicions for years, and that included Rhee.

In 2009, my colleague Bill Turque wrote about an investigation into possible cheating at 26 public and public charter schools where reading and math scores had shot up in 2008. The Rhee administration never got to the bottom of the allegations then.

Turque discovered in March that the two contracts that the school system issued to a contractor to review test security did not set out conditions that were likely to get to the bottom of the trouble. The first contract, in fact, told the company, Caveon Test Security, that it had only to interview “a sample” of the teachers who administered the suspect tests, and that it should “consult” with D.C. schools personnel about which materials to review “in a manner that minimizes demands on D.C. schools staff.”

Does that sound like a system determined to find out what happened?

When the USA Today stories were published in March, Rhee initially denounced the report as being hostile to reform. Ultimately, though, she said suspicions should be investigated but she knew that not much would be found.

Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform DC started in 2008 with a small group of teacher and activist parents who were frustrated with Rhee and her frequent foe, the Washington Teachers’ Union. Members of the group believed neither Rhee nor the union was focused on authentic teaching and learning. This group, which wants to improve instruction and a student’s ability to learn, should not be labeled “anti-reform.”

Here’s what the organization’s Web site says:

“D.C. public schools, under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, [became] obsessed with testing. Teacher pay is tied to test scores. Principal bonuses are tied to test scores. Teacher evaluations are tied to test scores. School funding is tied to test scores. Students are pulled from their regular classrooms for days or weeks each year, to be prepped for the tests. What’s this got to do with a quality education?

“Chancellor Rhee used to ask each principal, individually, to name the percentage point gain they would produce on test scores each year. She’d follow up with an email, reminding them of their commitment. Principals’ jobs were on the line if they didn’t produce.”

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