WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — District of Columbia schools officials knew in early 2009 about the possibility that dozens of teachers were cheating on standardized tests, two years before the issue was acknowledged publicly, according to an internal memo.
An analyst hired by then-schools chancellor Michelle Rhee found that 191 teachers at 70 schools had been implicated in possibly erasing students’ wrong answers and filling in the right ones, according to the memo obtained by The Associated Press on Friday.
Inspectors general from the district and the U.S. Education Department investigated and found isolated cheating but not to the extent suggested by the erasure rates. One teacher was fired for cheating.
Also Friday, school officials released an audit that showed cheating continues to be a problem in the city, which has moved aggressively to establish test-based accountability and evaluate teachers based on student performance.
The audit found cheating at 11 schools during the 2011-2012 school year. Test results from seven public schools and four charter schools have been thrown out. Chancellor Kaya Henderson said in a statement that teachers found to be involved will be disciplined and could be fired.
“Nearly all of our teachers, more than 99 percent, are following the very strict procedures and protocols we have in place to prevent testing impropriety,” Henderson said. “We do not tolerate cheating.”
The large numbers of wrong-to-right erasures highlighted by the 2009 memo were not revealed publicly until a 2011 USA Today investigation found questionable erasures at more than 100 schools.
A spokeswoman for Henderson said in a statement that the memo was based on incomplete information and flawed methodology. The spokeswoman, Melissa Salmanowitz, said that Henderson, who was Rhee’s deputy then, does not recall seeing the memo in 2009 or discussing it with Rhee.
“We remain confident in the results of every investigation conducted to date, all of which have concluded that there is no widespread cheating” in the city’s public schools, she said in the statement.
Rhee was hired as chancellor in 2007 by then-mayor Adrian Fenty. She fired hundreds of teachers who received poor evaluations — based in part on standardized test scores — during her 3-year tenure, a policy that has continued under Henderson. The cheating allegations provoked debate about whether the gains under Rhee were legitimate.
While the city’s schoolchildren have shown consistent progress on the district’s own standardized tests since 2007, federal testing data shows at best modest improvement in recent years.
Rhee now heads a nonprofit that advocates for education reform.
Cheating has been a problem in other school systems that rely on high-stakes testing, most notably Atlanta. Last week, a grand jury indicted that city’s ex-superintendent and nearly three dozen other former administrators, teachers, principals and other educators on charges arising from a test cheating scandal.
The memo alerting district officials, written by Fay “Sandy” Sanford and dated Jan. 30, 2009, was sent to Rhee’s top deputy for accountability. It was obtained by John Merrow of PBS’ “Frontline” and shared with AP. USA Today was first to report on its contents.
Sanford detailed one elementary school that saw big jumps in test scores where 88 percent of the tested students were taught by implicated teachers. He asked whether “a separate person could have been responsible” since nearly all the teachers had high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures.
“The possible ramifications are serious,” Sanford wrote.
The memo was shared with the inspectors general who investigated the cheating allegations. Rhee said in a statement that she did not recall receiving the memo.
A former principal, Adell Cothorne, said in a “Frontline” documentary that she came upon staff members surrounded by dozens of test booklets and erasers. She has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the school system. Henderson has said the school system has no record of Cothorne ever reporting those allegations, as she has maintained.
The audit covering last school year flags schools for investigation when two of four criteria are found, including wrong-to-right erasures, unusual improvement from year to year, score variation within classrooms and significant score drops. An independent firm investigated 25 schools and found what it called “critical violations” at 11 schools, meaning the test scores were automatically thrown out.
Of the public schools where cheating occurred, all were either elementary or combined elementary-middle schools, and two are scheduled to close at the end of the school year.
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