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Chancellor Rhee Corrects the Record

D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, after reading my latest post [Seen Cheating? Tell Me About It] contacted me to correct accounts of her reaction to the suspicious erasures on the 2008 standardized test for D.C. elementary school students.

My colleague Bill Turque's Wednesday story in the Post said "Rhee decided against a closer look" at the possibility of cheating at a few schools with unusual numbers of wrong to right answer changes after the testing company's investigator---who detected the erasures---declared his own data "inconclusive." The story said Rhee overruled then D.C. state superintendent of education Deborah A. Gist, who wanted the investigation to continue.

Rhee said she did not overrule Gist, who has since left D.C. to become Rhode Island's commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Instead, Rhee said, she asked Gist's office for clarification of the erasure reports. She wanted to know, for instance, which classes in each school showed usual numbers of answer changes. She did not get answers to several of her questions, she said. Rhee said that the investigator not only had said the data was inconclusive, but made it clear that "you cannot make any assumptions that any cheating happened based on this analysis."

After Gist left, Rhee said, she asked Gist's replacement, Keri Briggs, to review the situation. Rhee said Briggs told her the investigation had not produced enough information to justify a further look, and told Rhee not to pursue it. Turque said his Sept. 7 story said pretty much the same thing, but as I often do, he misremembered his own reportage.

By Jay Mathews  | September 23, 2009; 3:43 PM ET
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"Rhee said that the investigator not only had said the data was inconclusive, but made it clear that 'you cannot make any assumptions that any cheating happened based on this analysis.'"

OK, now let's get the investigator on record saying that- and let's get the details, For instance, what does he mean by "this analysis?" Is it too lacking in details to make assumptions? If so, where can we get the details? It’s easy for the chancellor to just say something and get it published. That doesn’t mean it happened.

Regarding Gist not providing requested info to the chancellor, I’ve noticed a pattern of the chancellor not being able to extract relevant information from people – like the vendor on the teacher-parent survey, who kept stalling her, preventing her from providing details to GAO relevant to its study ( page 33). As forceful as Rhee is, it’s hard to imagine her not pressing for and getting answers to legitimate questions. At best, I think she's showing extremely poor management skills. At worst she lying and using the press as a shill.

Posted by: efavorite | September 24, 2009 12:30 AM | Report abuse

It’s fascinating too that Rhee made a special call to you, Jay, to make a correction in your blog. It sounds like this investigation is really starting to get to her and she’s trying to control every bit of information. People often do that when they’re feeling threatened.

The chancellor crows about her “tremendous will,” telling John Merrow of PBS that, “When I know what needs to get done, very, very little, if anything, can stand in my way.” This implies that she thought it was very, very important to hide the cheating story as best she could, to shape it now that it’s out and gaining traction, and that it was not important at all to find out if cheating was going on. Instead, she bragged loudly and took credit for the quickly rising scores. That apparently is what needed to get done in the Chancellor’s eyes.

This does not bode well for actual school reform in DC.

Posted by: efavorite | September 24, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Thanks efavorite. You are on top of this, which I like, but you haven't done a good job persuading me that these erasures, in just a few schools, raise any serious doubts about the overall testing results in the city. Any evidence or calculations you have on that point would be most welcome. If Rhee was trying to cook the books, she would have made sure she did so at Shaw Middle. That obviously didn't happen, which weakens yr argument.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 24, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Hello Jay – I just noticed your response.

First off – Staw-man argument again. I didn’t claim Rhee was trying to cook the books or was directly involved in the cheating. I’m working with limited information here, but it looks more like she was an opportunist. When she saw the high scores, she didn’t care to investigate them. When Briggs did, she tried to hide it. When Turque investigated and was about to go public, she finally came out with a statement designed to minimize the situation.

I don’t think we know whether these few schools are the only ones with erasures, only that they were the ones examined. Even if they are the only ones, and even if they didn’t significantly affect overall scores, it seems obvious to me that cheating should be exposed and taken seriously by a head of a school district.

As you know, any actual “calculations” require data skills and access to data not readily available to the public. I’d say that’s your job.

Regarding Shaw, I suspect (and have said before) that they, like many other schools, did not cheat, out of some combination of being honest, feeling confident about their scores or feeling protected by the Chancellor’s good graces (which turned out to be true).

Posted by: efavorite | September 29, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Error - I should have said "Gist" instead of Briggs above. It was Deborah Gist, former head of OSSE, who started the investigation.

Posted by: efavorite | September 29, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

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