Chancellor Kaya Henderson has made a practice of avoiding the national spotlight, but Tuesday morning, at an U.S. Education Department symposium on cheating, she stepped up.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

“Because there is no standard either for identifying potential wrongdoing or for investigating once cheating is alleged, we are left with a fuzzy picture of what reliable outcomes are,” Henderson said.

DCPS is under investigation by District and federal authorities for alleged cheating by staff on the DC CAS between 2008 and 2010. Henderson asked the D.C. Inspector General to investigate after USA Today published a lengthy investigation last March that showed elevated levels of wrong-to-right answer sheet erasures in classrooms at more than 100 D.C. schools since 2008. The Education Department Inspector General later joined the inquiry.

But Henderson seemed to be saying that without clearer standards, even these probes will not resolve questions from the public or media about the sharp growth in D.C. test scores under former chancellor Michelle Rhee. It will also continue to render DCPS and other school systems vulnerable to what she described “those who would like to tear down outcome-based education reform.”

Henderson said DCPS took every conceivable step in response to questions about test security, including hiring a private firm, Caveon, to investigate high-erasure classrooms flagged by state authorities in 2009 and 2010. But Caveon founder John Fremer said last year that DCPS asked for a limited inquiry that didn’t involve all the forensic tools at its disposal.

“It was easy sport for the press to play the what-more-could-be-done game,” she said. “Couldn’t we have looked at right-to-wrong erasures in more schools? Wasn’t there more that our vendor could have done to identify inconsistencies? Couldn’t investigations have been more thorough? Can we release the information to the press so that press and the public could decide for themselves?”

Henderson said the answer to all the questions was “yes.” Caveon could have looked at patterns of answers within classrooms, annual score growth of students, or how results may have deviated from predictions based on interim tests.

“But there was no reason to believe that any of these actions would have yielded more reliable results or more accurate results,” she said. “It was clear to me it would be very easy for a district like ours to fall down a rabbit hole of testing investigations only to find out that because there are no widely accepted standards there is no agreed upon result that would have satisfied the press or the public.”

Henderson also referred to Monday’s column by New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip challenging the propriety of Education Secretary Arne Duncan sharing a panel with Rhee while the school system was under investigation. He also called the department’s selection of Henderson as one of the conference’s opening speakers “disheartening.”

“More generally the press has framed the challenge of test integrity as their struggle to out deceitful school districts,” Henderson said. “This approach is exactly wrong. Schools districts like ours struggle with these issues constantly.”