If you were waiting as I was for a firsthand account of test tampering at a D.C. public school, it came this week. A 42-year-old former principal says she was reduced to tears and hounded out of her job after she reported cheating at her Northeast Washington campus.

Adell Cothorne was hired in 2010 by then-D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to run the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus. She had been an administrator in Baltimore and Montgomery counties. She was warmly welcomed by Wayne Ryan, the award-winning principal she replaced at Noyes. He was promoted to instructional superintendent and became her boss.

Cothorne was thrilled to land the Noyes job. Its test scores were among the best in the District, and it had been named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Education Department. But, just weeks into the school year, she couldn’t square those high test scores with what she says she saw in classrooms: mediocre teaching and faltering student performance. She began to worry that the scores were fraudulent.

On Nov. 3, 2010, just hours after her students took the DC-BAS test, a practice exam, she discovered three staffers with pencil erasers poised above test answer sheets, in the midst of what looked to her like changing answers, she told me. That night, she says, she called two D.C. school officials she trusted to report what she had found. She assumed they would report the matter to their boss, then-
acting schools chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Cothorne said she doesn’t know whether Henderson was ever informed. But on Nov. 19, according to Cothorne and documents she filed in federal court, Ryan ordered her to his office and said: “I heard that you don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.”

Ryan did not respond to requests for comment, and a man who answered a phone listed in his name declined to comment.

Cothorne first told her story to education correspondent John Merrow in a PBS Frontline documentary scheduled to air again Thursday. She also gave a detailed account in a two-hour telephone interview with me and my wife, Linda Mathews, who conceived and edited a March 2011 series in USA Today that revealed widespread wrong-to-right erasures at several D.C. schools, particularly at Noyes.

Cothorne also filed a federal complaint against the D.C. government in May 2011, alleging that the awards Noyes and the school system had won had been obtained fraudulently by faking test scores. That lawsuit, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was unsealed in December and was publicly reported this week, after the U.S. Education Department and the U.S. Justice Department decided against joining it.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, in a statement, said Cothorne’s lawsuit was based on “fictitious claims.” She said “there is no widespread cheating at DCPS.”

What is most striking about Cothorne’s account, which fits with testing data and previous reports about Ryan’s methods, is that no D.C. official with the power to investigate her complaints ever bothered to interview her about them. In the federal complaint, she identifies Josh Edelman and Hilary Darilek, then both prominent D.C. school officials, as the persons she called on Nov. 3 after accidentally discovering the apparent erasures.

D.C. schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said Edelman and Darilek said they “never heard from Ms. Cothorne about these specific cheating allegations.” They said they were in frequent conversation with her but that she never told them about the erasing incident.

While what happened at Noyes could be seen as a he said, she said incident — and it is certainly possible that Cothorne misinterpreted what she saw — Henderson’s rejection of Cothorne’s account is in tune with her dismissal of other evidence of cheating at Noyes.

The school had 75 percent of its classrooms flagged by the testing company CTB/McGraw-Hill for unusual numbers of wrong-to-right erasures in 2008, followed by 81 percent in 2009 and 80 percent in 2010. At least five Noyes classrooms had wrong-to-right erasure rates of more than 10 per child, while the D.C. average was fewer than two.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill testing expert Gregory Cizek, who worked on the investigation of similar erasures in Atlanta, said only test tampering could produce so many changes from wrong answers to right ones.

At a time when test security was tightened system-wide, Cothorne changed the locks on the Noyes room where answer sheets were kept for tests in April 2011. The result: Scores dropped dramatically. The portion of Noyes students proficient in reading fell from 61 to 32 percent, and in math from 54 to 28 percent.

By the end of the 2010-11 school year, Ryan had left the district. D.C. officials never made clear whether the most highly touted principal in the district was fired or resigned. Despite the decline in scores at Noyes, Cothorne was asked to stay. But, in the summer of 2011, she quit to start a cupcake shop in Ellicott City and recover from what she said was her worst year in education.

No one in power ever explained to her what happened. The subject of cheating was toxic. Cothorne’s next supervisor told her to focus on “moving forward.”

Isn’t anyone in the D.C. government curious about what happened at Noyes, and why? Don’t they want to know why scores so quickly peaked, then immediately plummeted? Perhaps the D.C. Council or a congressional committee can find a way to take testimony from all involved, under oath, and get to the truth.

Cothorne, who wants to return to education, said she still thinks of how much more she could have done if the test scores had accurately reflected her students’ achievement levels, or if headquarters had exposed the lying and cheating she says she saw at Noyes. “The kids did not get the caliber of instruction that they needed” — remedial work, extra tutoring, perhaps counseling, she told me.

Cothorne was trying to protect the students and the system, while it appears the system is just trying to protect itself.