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Investigation finds cheating at D.C. schools

Standardized test scores from three D.C. classrooms were invalidated because teachers helped students choose the right answers or flouted security protocols in April 2011.

The problems at two traditional public schools and one public charter school make up a tiny percentage among more than 5,000 city classrooms who took the annual D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams last year amid formal scrutiny into possible cheating at city schools in prior years, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Schools.

A pair of teachers from the D.C. Public Schools involved — one each from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School and Langdon Educational Campus — will almost certainly be fired for assisting students on the test, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson said.

"These people will no longer teach in D.C. Public Schools," she told reporters on a conference call.

Two students at Perry Street Prep Public Charter School, formerly known as Hyde Leadership PCS, reported that a teacher let them know if they had answered a question incorrectly, according to results of the OSSE-led investigation conducted by an independent firm, Alvarez and Marsal LLC, that cost the city $400,000.

State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley acknowledged an intense focus on testing integrity in the wake of a March 2011 investigation by USA Today that raised questions about a high number of wrong-to-right erasures on the annual tests from 2008 to 2010, particularly at Noyes Education Campus in Northeast, during the tenure of former DCPS Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

The accusations are being investigated by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General with assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.

"We, like everyone else, would like for it to conclude as quickly as possible so we all know what happened or didn't," Ms. Mahaley said.

Ms. Henderson said she and other officials at DCPS have been interviewed by the inspector general's office, but she does not know how much longer the inquiry will take because there is a "firewall" between the agency and the investigation.

The 2011 test was administered to about 35,000 students in grades 3-8 and grade 10 in 262 schools across the District. Officials noted that out of 5,089 classrooms tested, only three — less than 0.1 percent — sustained "critical violations" defined as test tampering or academic fraud.

Ms. Henderson said she hopes the notion there is a culture of underhanded testing tactics in D.C. Public Schools "is finally put to rest."

"This idea of widespread cheating — we just don't have any evidence for it," she said.

Reporters at a press event at OSSE's headquarters noted that flagging for wrong-to-right erasures appears to have dropped precipitately in the last four years, even as the number of schools under scrutiny increases.
"Honestly, I have to say it might be due to some of the media attention that was placed on this," Ms. Mahaley said, also attributing it to improved training of teachers and test proctors.

The OSSE-commissioned investigation into 2011 testing flagged 70 schools — 60 traditional public schools and 10 public charter schools — based on three forms of criteria. Investigators looked for wrong-to-right erasures, student improvement that was more drastic than normal and intra-classroom scores that did not fit the typical "bell curve."

Ultimately, only three classrooms presented problems that rose above administrative errors, failure to report certain types of incidents or cell phone use that did not amount to test fraud.

Ms. Mahaley described the mother of a student at MLK Elementary School as a "huge hero" for raising a red flag when her son came home with test results "that she didn't think were possible for her child."

The boy explained that a teacher had provided answers and "coaching."

"She reported that," Ms. Mahaley said of the mother, "and that led to an investigation."

At the charter school, a teacher and a proctor in the affected 3rd grade classroom left at the end of the 2010-2011 school year, although a school official said she did not know if their departure was related to the investigation.

Holly Cherico, the school's marketing director, said it was "upsetting" to learn of the incident and they apologize to parents and students. The school has amped up its test security and training, she said.

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