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Secret Memo Suggests Cheating Likely Widespread in D.C. Under Rhee

The data analyst hired by former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to investigate whether educators cheated on standardized exams urged the hard-charging schools leader and her senior staff to take seriously the possibility that nearly 200 teachers across 70 schools in the district may have changed students' incorrect responses to correct ones in 2008.

That revelation, among others, surfaced yesterday evening in a never-before-seen memo that was obtained by John Merrow, the independent television reporter/producer who has reported extensively on Rhee's career since she was tapped to lead the D.C. school system in 2007. (She left in 2010.) The four-page memo, marked as "Sensitive Information-Treat as Confidential," explains how the number of "wrong-to-right" erasures in some schools occurred at rates far higher than would be expected unless there had been some sort of manipulation by adults.

The memo, written in January 2009 by Fay G. "Sandy" Sanford, highlights the large number of teachers implicated for high rates of wrong-to-right erasures that occurred at one school in particular—Aiton Elementary—where educators were showered with performance bonuses by Rhee for giant, one-year improvements in reading and math scores.

Merrow most recently produced an hour-long documentary for PBS "Frontline" about Rhee's impact on schooling in Washington during her short and stormy tenure as chancellor.

In a very long piece on his Taking Note blog, Merrow writes that even in the face of the red flags raised by her own consultant, Rhee opted not to aggressively investigate. Two separate inspectors general—one for the District of Columbia and the other for the U.S. Department of Education—concluded that no widespread cheating took place in D.C. in the spring of 2008.

It's those two findings that Rhee cites in a carefully worded statement to Merrow when he asked her to respond to Sanford's memo. In her statement to Merrow, Rhee also claims not to remember Sanford's memo. Given the subject matter and nature of the memo, that claim really stretches credulity.

So the big question now is, so what? Will this memo lead to harder, more probing questions about cheating that Rhee, founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst, cannot ignore? With the indictments of 35 former educators in Atlanta, including former superintendent Beverly Hall, for their alleged role in widespread cheating, I would at least expect the calls for a deeper investigation of what happened in D.C. to get a whole lot louder.

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