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Questions of Possible Cheating in DCPS

DC Schools chief Kaya Henderson has asked DC's inspector general to investigate in response to Monday's USA Today front-page story suggesting that some big DCPS test score gains may have been the product of cheating. Henderson's move was the right one, because the questions raised by the USA Today analysis are real, legitimate, and serious ones. RHSU readers know that I'm unapologetic about defending Henderson's efforts in DCPS (and those of her predecessor, Michelle Rhee) against cheap shots, but the questions raised here are more substantial--and absolutely deserve the kind of careful evaluation that Henderson has endorsed.

As the Washington Post's Bill Turque reported, "[Henderson] made the request after a USA Today investigation found unusually high rates of erasures in which students apparently corrected their answer sheets for standardized tests between 2008 and 2010."

Turque summed the situation up nicely, explaining, "More than 100 D.C. public schools had the unusual rates of erasures, in which wrong answers were replaced by correct ones. One seventh grade classroom, at Noyes Education Campus in Northeast Washington, averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on the 2009 DC CAS reading test. The citywide average that year was less than one per test."

The back story here is complicated by the fact that Michelle Rhee's critics have taken so many cheap shots over the last few years that there is something of a "boy who cried wolf" syndrome. I suspect that may have been a factor in DCPS's decision not to pursue earlier concerns about possible cheating raised by DC's state education agency when they were first mentioned a few years back. And I presume that's what Rhee was reacting to on Monday, when she responded to the careful and carefully written USA Today story by thundering, "It isn't surprising that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved ... unless someone cheated."

I was pleased to see Rhee take a more measured line yesterday, with Bill Turque reporting that she'd contacted his WaPo colleague Jay Mathews and conceded that some of her initial remarks were "stupid," and that, "You have got to have really strong test-security protocols at the district level and at the state level. The vast majority of people will not cheat, but there will be exceptions here and there."

That's absolutely correct. Concerns about cheating have been part and parcel of American education for decades. At this very moment, Atlanta is being buffeted by very serious questions about its test scores. And efforts to raise the stakes of student performance on achievement tests, in terms of individual job security and compensation, promise to dramatically boost the temptation to cheat. It will be necessary to enhance safeguards and tighten security, and for state and local officials to investigate possible wrongdoing in a deliberate, measured fashion so as to avoid unfairly besmirching the reputations of individual teachers, school leaders, or administrators.

The reality is that stressing certain results pressures employees to deliver those results, come hell or high water. There's no surprise here. This is how accountability works. The trap is that this yields a mix of productive and destructive behaviors. The trick for leadership is to design systems, safeguards, and protocols that encourage healthy responses and avoid undesirable ones (e.g. test prep or cheating). We have fallen far short on this score, to date. I'm hopeful that DCPS's response to these legitimate questions will offer a chance to start doing better.

(For those readers who want to argue "this is why educational accountability is a bad idea," I don't have the energy to rehash that debate this morning. If you're interested in my take, go read Chapter 2 of Common Sense School Reform or my old Educational Leadership piece "The Case for Being Mean.")

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