Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., became a conservative star of sorts for her willingness to take on the teachers’ union and the education establishment, among other things by firing teachers whose students did not improve on standardized testing. As chancellor, Rhee also instituted a lucrative bonus program for teachers and principals at schools that did show significant improvement.
The policy change had an effect; standardized scores rose significantly during Rhee’s three-year tenure. Eventually, however, her brash, combative style contributed to the re-election defeat of her most important champion, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, and last year Rhee was forced to resign as DC chancellor.
However, that career setback conferred martyr status on Rhee, who launched a nationwide speaking tour to spread her message of reform. Earlier this year, she was welcomed at the Georgia Capitol with a hearing in her honor in the Legislature and a private session with Gov. Nathan Deal.
However, as USA Today reports, the claim of sudden, significant improvement in DC schools might not bear close scrutiny. Consider, for example, Washington’s Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, which was lauded by Rhee and others as a shining illustration of what her new approach could accomplish. In 2006, only 10 percent of Noyes students tested as profiicent or advanced in math; two years later, that number had jumped to 58 percent.
A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones….
In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.
On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.
Is any of this beginning to sound familiar? How about this part?
“In 2008, the office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended that the scores of many schools be investigated because of unusually high gains, but top D.C. public school officials balked and the recommendation was dropped.
After the 2009 tests, the school district hired an outside investigator to look at eight D.C. public schools –– one of them was Noyes, USA TODAY learned — and to interview some teachers.
John Fremer, president of Caveon Consulting Services, the company D.C. hired, says the investigations were limited. The teachers were asked what they knew about the erasure rates but not whether cheating had taken place, Fremer says. They told Caveon that they “did what they were supposed to do and they didn’t do anything wrong,” he says.
Henderson, the D.C. chancellor, says D.C. educators interviewed by Caveon “gave specific reasons for high erasure rates. … Some emphasized to their students that (they) … should always go back, review their answers and make corrections, if needed.
“Other teachers,” she says, “encouraged students to eliminate wrong answers in the test booklet by marking an ‘X’ next to wrong answers, which could account for an unusual number of erasures if students marked their ‘X’ on the answer sheet instead of the test booklet.”
School district officials would not release the reports Caveon compiled. Caveon has been hired again to investigate the results of 2010 tests in which 41 DCPS schools, including Noyes, had at least one classroom flagged for high erasure rates. USA TODAY could not determine which schools are being scrutinized.”
Like Superintendent Beverly Hall, her counterpart in Atlanta, Rhee put great stress on standardized testing results. In fact, Rhee offered both more severe consequences for failure and more lucrative rewards for success than Hall has. And as in Hall’s case, she apparently showed little curiosity about how those results were being achieved. Pushing the story about reform became more important than pushing the mission of reform.
– Jay Bookman