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Seen Cheating? Tell Me About It.

Bless Bill Turque, the Post's D.C. schools correspondent, for his dogged coverage of the erasures in several schools that suggest all was not right with the 2008 administration of the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams. His latest story on Wednesday named the six elementary schools with the greatest concentration of suspicious answer changes, and provided enough to start a conversation on what to do about this.


As Turque has made clear in his continued coverage, a key moment in this drama was when D.C School Chancellor Michelle Rhee was told of the erasures, including one school that averaged 11 wrong-to-right answer changes, when the city average was less than 2. The testing company investigator who produced those numbers, however, declared the data "inconclusive." Rhee turned down a request from the then D.C. state superintendent of education, Deborah A. Gist to have someone take a closer look. (From the Editors: Please see the linked correction of this account.)

I suspect Rhee, in hindsight, has had second thoughts about that decision. Turque reveals in his latest story that the school system plans to check erasures on the most recent tests given last spring. I predict if similar patterns arise, they will get more attention.

I can understand why Rhee shrunk from a deeper investigation of possible cheating in 2008. She has many other issues on her plate, her staff is overworked, and checking into test cheating takes a particular kind of talent that is not very common. Sure, you can get tough, barge into the school under suspicion, interview everyone, and do your best imitation of the in-your-face detective Chris Meloni plays on "Law and Order: SVU."

I think that approach does more harm than good. If there has been cheating, teachers in that school will know about it, or have enough circumstantial evidence to give a wise superintendent an excuse to call the principal in for a chat. The best way to reach those teachers is by phone at home at night. Give them a chance to say what they know, in confidence, and the truth is more likely to emerge. The idea is to find out how it happened, who was involved, and make sure they don't have an opportunity to do it again. Cheating on a standardized test is not a crime. Nobody is going to jail. But we need to get those people away from kids, or if they are contrite, find some way to salvage their careers as educators.

The teachers I know who have seen cheating, or its unmistakable signs, don't want to pursue it. Blowing the whistle can kill their careers. If the D.C. erasures involved cheating, it had to be the fault of adults. Elementary school students would have no reason to stick their necks out on a test that had no consequences for them. Cheating by educators is thankfully rare. (Cheating by high school students, on the other hand, is much more frequent, a topic for another day.)

If someone did cross the line in D.C., or anywhere else, last year or this year, some teachers will know about it. I have been keeping secrets for educators for many years, and I think I can be trusted. If you want to tell me what you know in confidence, off the record, just to hash it out with another human being, call me at 703-518-3012 or email me at We can discuss your options. Maybe you don't have any. But it will help me to understand what is going on, and I would be grateful for your advice and counsel on how I should interpret what you are telling me, and what you think we should be doing about those erasures in 2008. .

By Jay Mathews  | September 23, 2009; 1:18 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Jay – as you well know – if principals are doing the cheating, teachers are unlikely to know about it – unless they saw the principal in action – which is doubtful. They can only suspect, let’s say, based on the principal having the tests in his/her possession for a while. That’s very circumstantial.

Also, you say, “Turque reveals in his latest story that the school system plans to check erasures on the most recent tests given last spring. I predict if similar patterns arise, they will get more attention.” Turque’s words were, “Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, said the District plans to perform an erasure analysis on all 2009 results.”

My interpretation, posted in a comment to Turque’s article is: “In other words, this year no independent researcher is going to be hired behind our backs by the state superintendent of schools (who then resigns). We’re going to do the analysis ourselves and this time it will come out the right way.”

So, we’ll see who’s right, but if the District investigates itself, it doesn’t count – it’s got to be an outside investigator. Agreed?

Posted by: efavorite | September 23, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Come on, Jay, Rhee didn’t just shrink “from a deeper investigation of possible cheating in 2008”; She shrank from even mentioning it. She didn’t even call the investigation; Deborah Gist did (and then resigned). Rhee did her best to hide it, until she could no longer, when Turque was about to publish information about it he got through FOIA (Freedom of information act) requests. Then Rhee and Fenty took to the podium for the first time about potential cheating, to put their spin on it.

I hope more people talk with you about what they know. Meanwhile, I’ve been hearing about cheating suspicions in ’08 for months. Apparently some people got to Gist and Turque and now we’re finally getting some information. And it’s VERY important. Rhee is building her reputation on this brand of school reform – unbelievably high scores pulled off quickly and singlehandedly by hard working teachers in inner city schools, just the way she says she did in her undocumented teaching success. Don’t you want to know if it’s for real? Our children’s future is on the line.

Posted by: efavorite | September 23, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

I see yr point, but was McGraw Hill the test provider of the DC-CAS? If so, their investigator is not exactly an outsider. As for teachers detecting a principal's misdeeds, that is exactly what I am talking about. They know. One teacher told me of several kids who could not read at all, and yet scored proficient after the answer sheets emerged from the principal's office. That is information that a school chancellor should have.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 23, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Good point, Jay, thanks for clarifying. I should not have said that McGraw Hill is an “independent researcher.” However, they are “outside,” as in not part of DCPS, and they do have specific expertise on the DC-CAS test, having developed it. They are in a unique position to understand and critique problems with the test and would want to, to preserve their credibility with DCPS and any other clients they may have. Assuming they are reputable, they have a product to protect and want it to be used properly.

Good luck with the teachers ratting on principals. I agree – it’s information that the chancellor should have. I don’t think she wants it though, because she could have easily pursued it on her own by now. Kudos to you for going after it.

Posted by: efavorite | September 23, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

I want to clarify my correction. In the comment above, I referred to McGraw Hill both as an independent researcher and an outside investigator. The terms are not necessarily synonymous, but they can be. In this case, McGraw Hill cannot be considered to be objective on the subject of testing, as they are testers themselves. But as testers, they are knowledgeable, have a reputation to uphold and have an intense interest in preserving the credibility of their test, which they can do, in part, by investigating erasure patterns.

Rhee also has a reputation to uphold – and a school district to run – and the future of 45,000 children in her hands. But it seems like the only reputation she is actively working on is her image as a human bulldozer who fires teachers by any means possible.

She’s very forceful about that, but when it comes to other parts of her job, she is easily halted by contractors and colleagues who don’t provide her with requested information or advise her against pursuing an issue further.

This is beyond bad management. It’s childish behavior and I think more and more adults are starting to see it that way.

Posted by: efavorite | September 24, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

i appreciate efavorite and other readers' forthright take on this, and plan to address it in Monday's column about Shaw Middle.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 24, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Great, I'm eagerly awaiting your column. Meanwhile, I thought of one other thing, and then I plan to drop this subject until Monday.

Regarding the teacher you mentioned who suspects the principal of changing answers to “proficient” of kids the teacher knew could not read --- if those kids were retested a year plus later and still could not read, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rhee used an excuse you quoted her on in October ’08, when (in my opinion) she was covering in advance for the fact that her Baltimore miracle children, if ever found by an enterprising reporter, would not exhibit the 90% proficiency rates in reading supposedly attained under Rhee.

“‘All of those kids would go on to other teachers and totally lose everything because those teachers were’ lousy. (Rhee used an earthier adjective)”

Yes, I know that people can forget things they’ve learned, for many reasons. I can’t play the piano very well any more and it’s not my teacher’s fault. Then again, I probably wouldn’t still remember so much about astronomy if it hadn’t been for my 7th grade science teacher.

But in the case Rhee’s characterization of her students, I see this as an additional example of Rhee passing off responsibility and disparaging teachers – feats at which she excels.

Posted by: efavorite | September 24, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

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