Several investigations into suspicions of widespread cheating by educators in D.C. schools on student standardized tests during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor turned up precious little, but two new developments warrant a new probe — this time by investigators with subpoena powers.
My colleague Emma Brown reported in this story that teachers in 18 D.C. classrooms cheated last year on high-stakes standardized tests during the chancellorship of Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s successor as chancellor, according to the results of an investigation released Friday by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. That news followed the publication of a 2009 memo written by a data analyst who said that there were suspicions that nearly 200 teachers had cheated on 2008 standardized tests in the District.
The cheating concerns arise from Rhee’s 2008-2010 tenure in the District, a time when she instituted a new educator evaluation system that turned student standardized tests into high-stakes exams by linking the scores to how much teachers and principals were paid and whether they were able to keep their jobs. The evaluation system continued, with some changes, under Henderson’s leadership.
There have been confirmed cases of educators cheating on student standardized states in several dozen cities over recent years, most prominently in Atlanta, where the former superintendent and 34 other educators were recently indicted after an independent probe supported by two Georgia governors.
The memo was released by independent journalist John Merrow — who chronicled Rhee’s D.C. tenure in a “Frontline” segment for PBS earlier this year — as part of a post on his Taking Note blog titled “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error.” It starts with this note:
With the indictment of former Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly A. Hall and 34 other public school employees in a massive cheating scandal, the time is right to re-examine other situations of possible illegal behavior by educators. Washington, DC, belongs at the top of that list.
Michelle A. Rhee, America’s most famous school reformer, was fully aware of the extent of the problem when she glossed over what appeared to be widespread cheating during her first year as Schools Chancellor in Washington, DC. A long-buried confidential memo from her outside data consultant suggests that the problem was far more serious than kids copying off other kids’ answer sheets. (“191 teachers representing 70 schools”). Twice in just four pages the consultant suggests that Rhee’s own principals, some of whom she had hired, may have been responsible (“Could the erasures in some cases have been done by someone other than the students and the teachers?”).
Rhee has publicly maintained that, if bureaucratic red tape hadn’t gotten in the way, she would have investigated the erasures. For example, in an interview  conducted for PBS’ “Frontline” before I learned about the confidential memo, Rhee told me, “We kept saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this; we just need to have more information.’ And by the time the information was trickling in back and forth, we were about to take the next year’s test. And there was a new superintendent of education that came in at the time. And she said, ‘Okay, well, we’re about to take the next test anyway so let’s just make sure that the proper protocols are in place for next time.’”
At best, that story is misleading.
The four-page memo Merrow uncovered was written in January 2009 by consultant Fay G. “Sandy” Sanford and addressed to someone named Erin, apparently Erin McGoldrick, who served as chief of data and accountability under Rhee. The memo, marked on each page “Sensitive Information — Treat as Confidential” — says there are suspicions that nearly 200 educators had changed test scores on student standardized tests in 2008:
I’ve been working furiously on the Erasure Study. It is common knowledge that in the high stakes testing community that one of the easiest ways for teachers to artificially inflate student test scores is to erase student wrong responses to multiple choice questions and recode them as correct …. There are 191 representing 70 schools that are implicated in possible testing infractions by the study….
In the memo Sanford details data at one school, Aiton Elementary, where there was a big leap in reading and math test scores over a single year, and where teachers were rewarded with bonuses for the rise as part of Rhee’s merit pay plan. But he also wrote:
Aiton is NOT the only school in this situation.
There have been several investigations into suspicions of D.C. test cheating, which were raised in an investigation published by USA Today in 2011 that raised questions about the validity of the District’s test scores under Rhee.
Caveon Test Security did a limited probe into possible cheating on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System but found virtually nothing; critics complained that D.C. schools officials did not ask Caveon to use all of the forensic tools at its disposal, according to this story by my colleague Bill Turque, and asked it to look at just 10 schools out of the more than 110 classrooms across 41 schools flagged by CTB/McGraw-Hill for elevated levels of wrong-to-right erasures on the 2010 test.
The Inspector General of the U.S. Education Department looked into the issue without taking action, and D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby reported last August that after a 17-month probe he had found no evidence of actual answer-sheet tampering. But his investigation focused on just one school, Noyes Elementary, where there had been big reading and math test score gains and educators had also received merit pay bonuses.
In a statement to Merrow about the memo, which referred to 2008 test scores, Rhee said:
As chancellor I received countless reports, memoranda and presentations. I don’t recall receiving a report from Sandy Sanford regarding erasure data from the DC CAS, but I’m pleased, as has been previously reported, that both inspectors general (DOE and DCPS) reviewed the memo and confirmed my belief that there was no wide spread cheating.” After receiving this statement, I sent her the memo; her spokesman responded by saying that she stood by her earlier statement.
She doesn’t recall the Sanford memo that said there were suspicions that nearly 200 educators had cheated in 2008? Really?
The memo does not offer conclusive evidence that cheating occurred, but it literally begs for a thorough probe to be conducted — this time by investigators with subpoena powers.
The indictment of former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other educators on test cheating charges — under a law used against mobsters — shows that the only way to get to the truth about these suspicions is by approaching it as a criminal case and sending in investigators who can subpoena witnesses. You don’t investigate criminal activity by going in and asking, “Did you cheat? Are you sure you didn’t cheat?” Everyone should have to testify under oath, including Rhee, who appears to have done her best to keep a lid on the allegations.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, called on Friday for a thorough investigation and for the D.C. Council to conduct hearings:
This memo is troubling for two reasons: First, it strongly suggests that Michelle Rhee knew in 2009 of widespread allegations of cheating in D.C. public schools and failed to act. And second, it indicates that rather than conducting a full investigation of the allegations, a strategy was devised to dodge them.
Those of us in D.C. at the time heard rumors that Rhee pressured principals to improve test scores and that she looked the other way when evidence of cheating was put before her. As John Merrow concluded, Rhee’s overzealous fixation on testing and measurement, and her efforts to silence and fire anyone who questioned her reckless, destabilizing strategies, ultimately failed D.C.’s kids. Under Rhee’s tenure, DC-CAS scores showed little or no gain, and the performance gap between low-income and upper-income students actually widened. Schools were destabilized by the constant churn of teachers and principals being fired, relocated or leaving out of frustration. Our children deserved better.
In 2011, my colleague Nathan Saunders and I called for an immediate, full-scale investigation to be conducted by an unbiased third party. The Sanford memo—suggesting 70 schools may be at issue—also calls into serious question whether the investigations done by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Department of Education inspector general, as well as the actions of D.C. State Superintendent of Education Deborah Gist, were comprehensive and thorough.
We renew the call for a full investigation, and ask the D.C. City Council, with its full subpoena powers, to conduct a series of hearings. That would be putting students first.”
What did Rhee do when the evidence in the memo was presented to her?
Apparently she followed Sanford’s No. 1 recommendation as listed in the memo:
That we keep this Erasure study really close hold. No more people in the know than necessary until we have more conclusive results.
The problem is nobody has gotten “conclusive results.” Given that Rhee is the country’s best-known school reformer, who has gone around the country helping to implement her test-based style of reform, it is past time that her record as D.C. schools chancellor is fully understood.
Here’s the memo: