Education Media

Michelle Rhee, DC’s Miracle Schools—and Cheating on Test Scores


This week the chatter among education wonks and watchers has run at a high pitch around the twinned topics of:

1. USA Today’s series on possible widespread cheating on standardized tests in many of Washington DC’s public schools.

2. The less-than-graceful reaction to the series by former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Here’s the deal: This week, USA Today began an excellent investigative series that explored the implications of an unusually high incidence of wrong-to-right erasures on the standardized tests that all public school students are expected to take. In particular, USA Today reporters Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello, focused on Washington D.C. public schools, many of which had been notoriously low-performing, but that in the last three or four years had demonstrated big jumps in test scores.

The DC chools’ rise began when education reform superstar, Michelle Rhee, was appointed school chancellor in mid-2007. Among her other reforms, Rhee reportedly pushed school principals hard to raise their student test scores by 10 percentile points every year—or, if possible, more than that. Noble goals, ot be sur

One of the schools where the progress was the most dramatic was called Noyes.

Here’s what USA today reported:

In just two years, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from a school deemedin need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its “shining stars.”

Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes’ students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.

Because of the remarkable turnaround, the U.S. Department of Education named the school in northeast Washington a National Blue Ribbon School. Noyes was one of 264 public schools nationwide given that award in 2009.

Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in Noyes. She touted the school, which now serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes’ staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000.

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.
Click to view documents

This is a series of documents obtained by USA TODAY through public-records requests. It details a back-and-forth between two District of Columbia agencies on test-score investigations.

Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That’s more than half of D.C. schools.

Erasures are detected by the same electronic scanners that CTB/McGraw-Hill, D.C.’s testing company, uses to score the tests. When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student.

In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.

Michelle Rhee, then-chancellor of D.C. schools, visits with J.O. Wilson Elementary third-grader Kmone Feeling last August.

On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

But Noyes was far from alone. The USA today reporters found that, from 2008 to 2010, D.C. schools’ testing company, CTB/McGraw-Hill, recommended that the school district investigate higher than typical answer sheet erasure rates at 103 of its 168 schools—possible evidence that adults had corrected students’ mistakes. The D.C. schools honchos instead did a skin deep investigation of the possible cheating—and reported that they found basically nothing.


After the series broke, Rhee, who left the chancellor position in 2010, appeared on the Tavis Smiley Show on Monday night and, when asked about possible cheating, simply trashed the reporters and said the investigation “absolutely lacked credibility.”

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 for DCPS students unless someone cheated,” Rhee said. “It is surprising to see USA Today proceed down this path in the face of a statement from the independent investigators that there was no evidence of cheating. This story is an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels.”


By Tuesday night, a list of people had blasted Rhee for her kill-the-messenger remarks, including Daily Best Education writer, Dana Goldstein, former US Education Secretary Diane Ravitch, and the WaPo’s Mike DeBonis, who wrote about what he called Rhee’s “flat-earth response to testing reliability…”

And so, as the discussion of value added ratings of teachers continues, DC schools’ erasuregate cannot help but add a new wrinkle to the already complicated notion of ranking teachers according to how much their students improve on standardized tests.

NOTE: The District of Columbia’s Board of Education will hold a hearing next week
on the “irregularities” in school test scores.



Now that AJ Duffy—he of the two-toned shoes and the hatred of charter schools—has termed out, his pick-to-click successor, Julie Washinton, was predicted as the easy winner.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Non-ruling junta candidate, Warren Fletcher, emerged with the most votes.

Fletcher campaigned saying he wanted to “turn UTLA around and make it a serous, credible union.”

Yeah. That’d be refreshing.


  • Marc Kleiman flat-out called Rhee a liar. Actually, I think a good liar could have come up with a more credible response. That one sounds Palinesque…

  • Speaking of Palinesque, did y’all catch the doozy replayed on Jon Stewart’s Daily show a couple days ago? Responding to a tv reporter’s question on her take on Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis, she responded that she didn’t know whether to call it a war, a “squirmish,” or what – must’ve misread her talking points about a “skirmish,” or figured she’d “fix” the grammatical error. You’re giving Palin way too much credit here.

    As for ranking teachers by students’ test scores, it’s this “teaching to the test” that has really dragged down the overall quality of teaching AND joy of learning, it’s utterly misguided for teachers AND students. Some of the best teachers teach “outside the box” – I know from experience too – and this sort of skewed ranking actually encourages teachers to cherry-pick students insofar as possible, discourages them from taking on the more challenging students, etc. (What if Palin’s teachers had been ranked by HER achievements? How does SHE test on her language SAT’s or math and geography, dare we ask?)

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