John Merrow also replies to a friend of Michelle Rhee

One of the tiny handful of DC parents who are deceived by Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson wrote another attack on the credibility of the good section of John Merrow’s PBS special on Rhee. It reads like a press release from Henderson’s office. Here is Merrow’s response:

Here’s PBS’s John Merrow’s Response

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your open letter to the PBS Ombudsman. Let me begin by addressing the timing of the statement by the USDE Inspector General. It was released just hours before our national broadcast, and it was only then that Frontline learned of Adell Cothorne’s legal complaint, which had been sealed from public view until it was released by the IG. Although it was too late to include this information in the body of the film, Frontline made extraordinary efforts to include detailed information about the USDE IG’s statement and Cothorne’s filing, and included links to documents in the coda to the film and on its web site.

While we had heard rumors of an investigation by the USDE IG, we were unable to confirm them and could not identify any DC educators who had been interviewed by the USDE IG. We understand now that she [the USDE IG] did her work ‘in tandem’ with the DC Inspector General.

You write ” . . . on six exams administered since allegations of cheating were raised, DC students continued to show steady progress rather than a system wide drop off as you would expect under increased testing security.” I would make two important points. First, the relevant comparison is not to the entire system but to the schools which were flagged for high erasure rates. If one examines the data for the 16 schools with erasure rates of 50% or higher, it is clear that heightened security had a significant impact.

The DC-CAS scores at Noyes, where 81% of classrooms were flagged for high erasures, are themselves circumstantial evidence that supports Cothorne’s allegation. Below are the Noyes DC-CAS scores over five years; 2011 represents the year that security was tightened.

  2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Reading 44.14% 61.53 84.21 61.36 32.40
Math 34.24% 57.69 62.79 53.64 28.17


 That represents a drop of nearly 50 points in reading between 2009 and 2011, and a drop of roughly 34 points in math. Note also that in 2011 Noyes students were scoring belowtheir pre-Rhee level.

In all, data are available for 16 schools with erasure rates of at least 50%. DC-CAS reading scores rose in only two schools after security was tightened. Math scores rose in just 4 schools and declined in 12.

Here are three examples:

* At Aiton, (which, like Noyes, had been awarded large cash bonuses) scores in reading dropped from 58.43% proficient to 20.80%, well below pre-Rhee levels. In math, Aiton dropped from 57.87% to 16%, which is also below pre-Rhee levels.

* Raymond also received large bonuses from the Chancellor. Its scores in reading fell from 70% to 42.44%, and its math scores fell from 68% to 45.71%. The reading score is below pre-Rhee levels.

* Savoy went from 46.51% to 20.39% in reading and from 38.37% to 15.38% in math, also well below pre-Rhee levels.

Second, you reference ‘steady progress,’ and it is true that the DC-CAS scores have shown very slow but steady growth (a point made by Rhee in her final interview and shown in our film). That change is credible and consistent with what students of measurement say can be expected in schools that are making progress. However, hugegains and losses are greeted, quite properly, with skepticism by experts, although not by Rhee or her team.

Moreover, as noted in the film, DC schools continue to rank among the worst districts in the nation and have the absolute lowest graduation rate in the US.

The co-investigator of the cheating scandal in Atlanta, Georgia (where investigators had subpoena power and put those testifying under oath) told Frontline that they considered wrong-to-right erasures at a rate of three or more standard deviations away from the norm to be prima facie evidence of cheating. In some classrooms at Noyes, the rate was five or more standard deviations away from the norm, and yet this did not trigger an in-depth investigation.

‘In depth’ would mean erasure analysis and a search for patterns. This can reveal if the person doing the erasing corrected the easier questions or the more difficult ones. If the latter, that raises questions.

No erasure analysis was conducted by Caveon or the DC Inspector General or requested by Rhee.

You write: “Frontline implies that the DC Inspector General’s investigation was not credible and relies on Cothorne’s testimony to substantiate this point.” That is incorrect. We examined the IG Report carefully and reported the facts. Which are: The DC IG report did not examine DC-CAS results during Rhee’s first year, the year with the greatest number of erasures. He did not perform erasure analysis. He did not interview Cothorne. Individuals who spoke with him were not under oath. His report cites one instance where he heard conflicting testimony and simply accepted the word of one individual and rejected the other’s, but he provides no support for that decision. During his 17-month investigation he interviewed just over 50 people. 17 months is approximately 515 days, meaning that he interviewed, on average, one person every 10 days.

He did not examine other schools. In fact, the IG acknowledges that he eliminated one school, Wilson, because the current Chancellor convinced him that Wilson faculty and staff were working hard. However, Wilson’s scores dropped 19% in reading and 23% in math between 2009 and 2011, and 100% of its classrooms had been flagged for high erasures.

We requested an interview with the DC IG to discuss his report, including Cothorne’s charges, but that request was rebuffed.

After interviewing Cothorne, Frontline also attempted to interview Chancellor Rhee. It is accepted form in journalism for the subject of a program to be given ‘the last word,’ a final opportunity to respond to what others have said, and we wanted that to be the case in this instance. We negotiated with Rhee’s attorney, Reid Weingarten, who insisted on seeing written questions that we would be asking. Frontline submitted a number of written questions, which we will not release because they include references to other allegations not made public. Weingarten had indicated that Rhee would respond in writing and, at the same time, consider an on-camera interview. In fact, she did not respond in any way.

Frontline stands by the program, and I stand by what I wrote in Taking Note, my blog.


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