DC Schools 'Cheating' Scandal Heats Up

Top educator Wayne Ryan of Noyes Education Campus in Washington DC resigned his post after having been promoted by super school reformer Michelle Rhee.  What precipitated the change?  Following a timeline going back three years reveals questions which cannot be explained away. The story involves possible cheating on tests by "erasure corrections," bonuses handed out to those teachers and principals overseeing the testing, and Rhee's feigned innocence about the matter.

A year after StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee assumed the Chancellorship of DC schools she told Charlie Rose that standardized test scores should be given "the greatest weight" in performance-based teacher evaluations.  That was 2008.  Her nonprofit website bio makes the audacious claim that "under her leadership, the worst performing school district in the country became the only major city system to see double digit growth in state reading and math scores."

If Rhee's "double-digit growth" numbers sound too good to be true they probably are.  A March 2011 report in USA Today investigated an abnormal amount of erasures occurring on standardized tests in 103 public schools for the 3 years Rhee was at the helm.  The article focused on Noyes where in 2009 one seventh-grade classroom "averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student" on a standard reading test.

"The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance" according to statisticians consulted by USA Today.

"This is an abnormal pattern," says Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied testing for 20 years.

Noyes, a 2009 Department of Education Blue Ribbon school, which also received a TEAM award from Chancellor Rhee in 2007, and its former principal Wayne Ryan have now become ground zero for a DC Inspector General's investigation into the test anomalies.

Last week Mr. Ryan, who was promoted by Rhee in 2010, resigned his position as an instructional superintendent.  The USA Today article prompted DC acting chancellor Kaya Henderson to promise a more thorough investigation than the one conducted by Caveon, an outside firm chosen by DCPS in 2009 which found no wrongdoing.  Henderson asked the Inspector General's office to look at the test scores from 2009.

According to Washington Teachers Union President Nathan Saunders, the same instructors and principals Rhee rewarded with bonuses from 2008-2010, totaling tens of thousands of dollars, are now lawyering up.

In the past month investigators have been questioning teachers at Noyes, and "numerous" teachers have asked the union for legal help. This is a serious issue...the stakes are increasingly high.

Under Rhee, Ryan was praised by Principal magazine as a shining star of DCPS and was used to recruit future school leaders by asking job applicants "'Are you the next Wayne Ryan?"  Now a potential firestorm threatens to envelop him and test superstar Rhee's credibility as a true education reformer.

It won't be the first time Rhee has been in the middle of a testing controversy.  As a Teach for America recruit at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary she asserted that the students made extraordinary progress.

Over a two-year period, [she] 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.

Yet as one journalist discovered, "There is no real evidence -- none at all -- that Rhee's miracle ever occurred."

When asked about the USA Today investigation into cheating under her watch Rhee responded that "the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the earth is flat."  Citing an earlier probe by the independent firm Caveon she stated that there are many reasons for erasures that don't involve cheating.  Later in a radio interview she said she welcomed an investigation by the city's Inspector General.

Ryan's resignation signals some troubling questions about Rhee's frenetic firing of 61 principals and hundreds of teachers within the first year of her tenure.  At an April 6 board meeting following the USA Today report a member asked Tamara Reavis, acting director of assessment and accountability for the State Department of Education, why the answer sheets were not immediately sealed by the teacher rather than in a separate office.  Reavis replied that "we have to trust our principals that it is secured."

Mike DuBonis of the Washington Post questioned Rhee's autocratic style and whether offering a "money for high test scores" strategy led to the alleged erasure abuses.

There are teachers who now find their jobs potentially on the line due to their students' test scores. Same goes for principals, who can achieve hero status with rapid testing gains or sudden unemployment with rapid testing reversals.

Rhee has become the school reformer by which all others are measured.  She has her own non-profit, receives millions of dollars from investor philanthropists, and works alongside Gov. Scott of Florida "reforming" his school system.  But her methods of increasing test scores appear dubious, and after all the investigations of foul play are finished, there's one group repeatedly ignored -- the students.    

But for now the investigation into the answer sheet erasures continues.

Read more M. Catharine Evans and Ann Kane at Potter Williams Report.

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