PBS’s John Merrow recently revealed a 2009 confidential memo pointing out troubling test answer erasures in Washington, D.C., schools, which were led at the time by Michelle Rhee, now the head of the national advocacy group StudentsFirst.
Merrow reported that the erasure concerns raised in the memo by an outside data consultant failed to prompt any investigation by top officials in the district.
The Washington Post is reporting that a probe is unlikely at this point, either. (A 2007 law placed Washington’s public schools under mayoral control. Under the D.C. model, the city council appoints some of the school board members.)
The chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee said Sunday that he has no plans to launch a full-scale investigation into allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests in 2008, during the tenure of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Council member David Catania (I-At Large) said that he intends to find out why the scope of a prior cheating investigation was limited to one school, but much of his focus will be on improving the integrity of future tests, which are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Catania said that in light of the 2009 memo, he is “bewildered by the narrow scope” of a investigation by the D.C. Inspector General, which lasted 17 months and focused only on one school. But he said a full-scale reinvestigation of the five-year-old allegations “would be impractical and would yield little in terms of accountability.”
“Among other things,” he said, “simply identifying and interviewing the hundreds of witnesses would overwhelm the Council’s limited staff and resources.” It makes more sense to focus on tightening test security and strengthening efforts to identify cheating in the future, the council member said.
In response, the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued this statement today:
“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.”
In her Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss writes:
If the memo isn’t enough to spark a new investigation, this should be: My colleague Emma Brown reported in this new story that teachers in 18 D.C. classrooms cheated last year on high-stakes standardized tests during the chancellorship of Henderson, Rhee’s successor in the post, according to the results of an investigation released Friday by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
This confirmed cheating took place after security was tightened as a result of the earlier suspicions. All in all, a new probe — by investigators with real subpoena powers, which is how the Atlanta cheating scandal was uncovered — is clearly warranted.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog. Note: All comments posted will be held in moderation until approved. Thanks, Maureen