Michelle Rhee, the former DC schools chief, has a perception of being results-oriented. She doesn’t have personal animus toward teacher’s unions, she just feels that the best way to improve learning for students is to engage in policies that allow her to elevate the best teachers and fire the worst. The rights of the student come first. It’s all about results.

So it’s very revealing to see this story in USA Today, hinting that the high performances in the classrooms Rhee oversaw may have been altered:

In just two years, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from a school deemed in 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 [...]

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 [...]

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.

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.

This doesn’t fully prove a case of fraud at the Noyes School: as Kevin Drum noted, perhaps students at Noyes were taught to look over their answers before completing the test. But he adds, “the pattern here sure seems to follow a pattern we’ve seen in other school districts that have reported startling test gains and later had to recant them for one reason or another.”

I think it’s important that this is part of Michelle Rhee’s legacy, while I’m not necessarily holding her responsible. She put a premium on success at DC schools, and that pressure can lead to some dastardly things. Moreover, if the Noyes School is found to have cheated on standardized tests, it invalidates a lot of the results Rhee held up as a model in how to best teach students.

USA Today ran into a lot of resistance from the DC Public Schools in getting to the bottom of their story. Needless to say, Rhee wouldn’t comment. Because of the high-profile nature of the then-chancellor and her advocacy in pushing for policies that have a major impact on teachers, this should be investigated further.

There’s also a point to be made about standardized testing and its inherently insecure nature, and how it’s ridiculous to use it as the only measure of school achievement, but we’ll leave that for another time.