US Education Dept. joins probe of DC test scores

AP News
Posted: Jul 08, 2011 5:12 PM
US Education Dept. joins probe of DC test scores

The U.S. Department of Education has joined an investigation of possible cheating on standardized tests, and District of Columbia leaders said Friday they welcome the scrutiny.

"I actually think that that is a huge step in ensuring that we have a thorough, serious investigation," said Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. "Generally our office of the inspector general doesn't do this kind of thing."

The city's inspector general began investigating after USA Today reported in March that more than 100 D.C. schools had unusually high rates of erasures on exams between 2008 to 2010. The Washington Post reported Friday that federal investigators have now joined in.

The news comes the same week a yearlong probe showed that 178 educators in the Atlanta school district were involved in a cheating scandal where they changed answers or helped students on standardized tests used to meet federal benchmarks. The Georgia investigation involved two former district attorneys with subpoena power, 2,100 interviews and up to 60 agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

In Washington, Mayor Vincent Gray said he would ask that more city investigators be devoted to the probe after a reporter told him Friday only one was assigned.

"We continue to pay close attention to the integrity of the testing process," said Gray, who oversees the city schools. "We don't want questions raised about gains ... we want the gains to be the result of children who have learned."

In May, city officials said test results for three D.C. classrooms were invalidated because of proven cases of cheating. Wayne Ryan, a school official promoted after test scores at Noyes Education Campus rose dramatically while he was principal there, resigned in June after the school was flagged for high erasure rates.

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said Friday that one teacher had been fired in the past year.

"Any place that we've had a confirmation for a testing impropriety, we have moved quickly to invalidate the scores and remove the teacher," she said.

In Atlanta, the probe found the former Atlanta schools superintendent knew about cheating allegations and may have tried to hide them. Investigators found a "culture of fear" in the school system that led to educators lying.

Gray said he didn't have any evidence of the same culture in Washington's public schools.

"But we know that can happen," he told The Associated Press. "I can tell you people who we find who are intimidating folks and imposing unreasonably, they've got to go."

As for whether former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee created pressure to cheat in D.C. schools by firing hundreds of teachers, some based on student test scores, Gray said, "She's gone. She's not here anymore."

Also Friday, D.C. State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley announced the preliminary results of the city's 2011 standardized tests. She said it will be fall before her office flags any classrooms for high erasure rates that could indicate cheating.

The preliminary test results show a 2.7 percent improvement in the number of secondary students scoring proficient in math. There was a slight gain in the number of secondary students proficient in reading.

For elementary students, there were slight declines in reading and math. It was the second consecutive year of declines in elementary scores, with proficiency rates down 6 percent since 2009.

Still, school officials hailed five consecutive years of gains in secondary grades, most dramatically a 20 percent increase in the number of students scoring proficient in math since 2007.

City officials said they would like the investigation of test scores to clear up lingering questions.

In addition to Atlanta, a state investigation in Maryland revealed cheating at three Baltimore schools between 2008 and 2010. Other schools also have been under investigation in Baltimore.

To this point, the investigation in Washington has been much more limited. The school system hired a private firm to examine possible testing improprieties in 2009, but the company has acknowledged that its investigations were limited and didn't examine individual student answers or interview teachers privately. Earlier requests for an investigation in 2008 were rebuffed, according to documents USA Today obtained.

Mark Simon, the father of a D.C. high school student, said he remained unconvinced that D.C. was willing to conduct a thorough and independent investigation into the cheating allegations.

"I think that Atlanta and the state of Georgia have established the bar for what a thorough investigation looks like," Simon said. "And if the U.S. Department of Education is not willing to do that kind of an investigation, then they become culpable."

Simon faulted a school culture that overemphasized the importance of standardized tests.

"When you have that kind of climate in schools," he said, "it's a setup for people doing the wrong thing."


Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.