Part Two: Cheating in DCPS

DC Education Reform Ten Years After, 

Part 2: Test Cheats

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). For temporal context, I arrived after the first of the infamous test cheating scandals and left just before the incident that spawned a second. Indeed, I filled a new position created to both manage test security and design an expanded testing program. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray, who opposed an expanded testing program, defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary. My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. 

The recurring test cheating scandals of the Rhee-Henderson years may seem extraordinary but, in fairness, DCPS was more likely than the average US school district to be caught because it received a much higher degree of scrutiny. Given how tests are typically administered in this country, the incidence of cheating is likely far greater than news accounts suggest, for several reasons: 

·      in most cases, those who administer tests—schoolteachers and administrators—have an interest in their results;

·      test security protocols are numerous and complicated yet, nonetheless, the responsibility of non-expert ordinary school personnel, guaranteeing their inconsistent application across schools and over time; 

·      after-the-fact statistical analyses are not legal proof—the odds of a certain amount of wrong-to-right erasures in a single classroom on a paper-and-pencil test being coincidental may be a thousand to one, but one-in-a-thousand is still legally plausible; and

·      after-the-fact investigations based on interviews are time-consuming, scattershot, and uneven. 

Still, there were measures that the Rhee-Henderson administrations could have adopted to substantially reduce the incidence of cheating, but they chose none that might have been effective. Rather, they dug in their heels, insisted that only a few schools had issues, which they thoroughly resolved, and repeatedly denied any systematic problem.  

Cheating scandals

From 2007 to 2009 rumors percolated of an extraordinary level of wrong-to-right erasures on the test answer sheets at many DCPS schools. “Erasure analysis” is one among several “red flag” indicators that testing contractors calculate to monitor cheating. The testing companies take no responsibility for investigating suspected test cheating, however; that is the customer’s, the local or state education agency. 

In her autobiographical account of her time as DCPS Chancellor, Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee), wrote (p. 197)

“For the first time in the history of DCPS, we brought in an outside expert to examine and audit our system. Caveon Test Security – the leading expert in the field at the time – assessed our tests, results, and security measures. Their investigators interviewed teachers, principals, and administrators.

“Caveon found no evidence of systematic cheating. None.”

Caveon, however, had not looked for “systematic” cheating. All they did was interview a few people at several schools where the statistical anomalies were more extraordinary than at others. As none of those individuals would admit to knowingly cheating, Caveon branded all their excuses as “plausible” explanations. That’s it; that is all that Caveon did. But, Caveon’s statement that they found no evidence of “widespread” cheating—despite not having looked for it—would be frequently invoked by DCPS leaders over the next several years.[1]

Incidentally, prior to the revelation of its infamous decades-long, systematic test cheating, the Atlanta Public Schools had similarly retained Caveon Test Security and was, likewise, granted a clean bill of health. Only later did the Georgia state attorney general swoop in and reveal the truth. 

In its defense, Caveon would note that several cheating prevention measures it had recommended to DCPS were never adopted.[2] None of the cheating prevention measures that I recommended were adopted, either.

The single most effective means for reducing in-classroom cheating would have been to rotate teachers on test days so that no teacher administered a test to his or her own students. It would not have been that difficult to randomly assign teachers to different classrooms on test days.

The single most effective means for reducing school administratorcheating would have been to rotate test administrators on test days so that none managed the test materials for their own schools. The visiting test administrators would have been responsible for keeping test materials away from the school until test day, distributing sealed test booklets to the rotated teachers on test day, and for collecting re-sealed test booklets at the end of testing and immediately removing them from the school. 

Instead of implementing these, or a number of other feasible and effective test security measures, DCPS leaders increased the number of test proctors, assigning each of a few dozen or so central office staff a school to monitor. Those proctors could not reasonably manage the volume of oversight required. A single DC test administration could encompass a hundred schools and a thousand classrooms.


So, what effort, if any, did DCPS make to counter test cheating? They hired me, but then rejected all my suggestions for increasing security. Also, they established a telephone tip line. Anyone who suspected cheating could report it, even anonymously, and, allegedly, their tip would be investigated. 

Some forms of cheating are best investigated through interviews. Probably the most frequent forms of cheating at DCPS—teachers helping students during test administrations and school administrators looking at test forms prior to administration—leave no statistical residue. Eyewitness testimony is the only type of legal evidence available in such cases, but it is not just inconsistent, it may be socially destructive. 

I remember two investigations best: one occurred in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood with well-educated parents active in school affairs; the other in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Superficially, the cases were similar—an individual teacher was accused of helping his or her own students with answers during test administrations. Making a case against either elementary school teacher required sworn testimony from eyewitnesses, that is, students—eight-to-ten-year olds. 

My investigations, then, consisted of calling children into the principal’s office one-by-one to be questioned about their teacher’s behavior. We couldn’t hide the reason we were asking the questions. And, even though each student agreed not to tell others what had occurred in their visit to the principal’s office, we knew we had only one shot at an uncorrupted jury pool. 

Though the accusations against the two teachers were similar and the cases against them equally strong, the outcomes could not have been more different. In the high-poverty neighborhood, the students seemed suspicious and said little; none would implicate the teacher, whom they all seemed to like. 

In the more prosperous neighborhood, students were more outgoing, freely divulging what they had witnessed. The students had discussed the alleged coaching with their parents who, in turn, urged them to tell investigators what they knew. During his turn in the principal’s office, the accused teacher denied any wrongdoing. I wrote up each interview, then requested that each student read and sign. 

Thankfully, that accused teacher made a deal and left the school system a few weeks later. Had he not, we would have required the presence in court of the eight-to-ten-year olds to testify under oath against their former teacher, who taught multi-grade classes. Had that prosecution not succeeded, the eyewitness students could have been routinely assigned to his classroom the following school year.

My conclusion? Only in certain schools is the successful prosecution of a cheating teacher through eyewitness testimony even possible. But, even where possible, it consumes inordinate amounts of time and, otherwise, comes at a high price, turning young innocents against authority figures they naturally trusted. 

Cheating blueprints

Arguably the most widespread and persistent testing malfeasance in DCPS received little attention from the press. Moreover, it was directly propagated by District leaders, who published test blueprints on the web. Put simply, test “blueprints” are lists of the curricular standards (e.g., “student shall correctly add two-digit numbers”) and the number of test items included in an upcoming test related to each standard. DC had been advance publishing its blueprints for years.

I argued that the way DC did it was unethical. The head of the Division of Data & Accountability, Erin McGoldrick, however, defended the practice, claimed it was common, and cited its existence in the state of California as precedent. The next time she and I met for a conference call with one of DCPS’s test providers, Discover Education, I asked their sales agent how many of their hundreds of other customers advance-published blueprints. His answer: none.

In the state of California, the location of McGoldrick’s only prior professional experience, blueprints were, indeed, published in advance of test administrations. But their tests were longer than DC’s and all standards were tested. Publication of California’s blueprints served more to remind the populace what the standards were in advance of each test administration. Occasionally, a standard considered to be of unusual importance might be assigned a greater number of test items than the average, and the California blueprints signaled that emphasis. 

In Washington, DC, the tests used in judging teacher performance were shorter, covering only some of each year’s standards. So, DC’s blueprints showed everyone well in advance of the test dates exactly which standards would be tested and which would not. For each teacher, this posed an ethical dilemma: should they “narrow the curriculum” by teaching only that content they knew would be tested? Or, should they do the right thing and teach all the standards, as they were legally and ethically bound to, even though it meant spending less time on the to-be-tested content? It’s quite a conundrum when one risks punishment for behaving ethically.

Monthly meetings convened to discuss issues with the districtwide testing program, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS)—administered to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. All public schools, both DCPS and charters, administered those tests. At one of these regular meetings, two representatives from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) announced plans to repair the broken blueprint process.[3]

The State Office employees argued thoughtfully and reasonably that it was professionally unethical to advance publish DC test blueprints. Moreover, they had surveyed other US jurisdictions in an effort to find others that followed DC’s practice and found none. I was the highest-ranking DCPS employee at the meeting and I expressed my support, congratulating them for doing the right thing. I assumed that their decision was final.

I mentioned the decision to McGoldrick, who expressed surprise and speculation that it might have not been made at the highest level in the organizational hierarchy. Wasting no time, she met with other DCPS senior managers and the proposed change was forthwith shelved. In that, and other ways, the DCPS tail wagged the OSSE dog. 

* * *

It may be too easy to finger ethical deficits for the recalcitrant attitude toward test security of the Rhee-Henderson era ed reformers. The columnist Peter Greene insists that knowledge deficits among self-appointed education reformers also matter: 

“… the reformistan bubble … has been built from Day One without any actual educators inside it. Instead, the bubble is populated by rich people, people who want rich people’s money, people who think they have great ideas about education, and even people who sincerely want to make education better. The bubble does not include people who can turn to an Arne Duncan or a Betsy DeVos or a Bill Gates and say, ‘Based on my years of experience in a classroom, I’d have to say that idea is ridiculous bullshit.’”

“There are a tiny handful of people within the bubble who will occasionally act as bullshit detectors, but they are not enough. The ed reform movement has gathered power and money and set up a parallel education system even as it has managed to capture leadership roles within public education, but the ed reform movement still lacks what it has always lacked–actual teachers and experienced educators who know what the hell they’re talking about.”

In my twenties, I worked for several years in the research department of a state education agency. My primary political lesson from that experience, consistently reinforced subsequently, is that most education bureaucrats tell the public that the system they manage works just fine, no matter what the reality. They can get away with this because they control most of the evidence and can suppress it or spin it to their advantage.

In this proclivity, the DCPS central office leaders of the Rhee-Henderson era proved themselves to be no different than the traditional public-school educators they so casually demonized. 

US school systems are structured to be opaque and, it seems, both educators and testing contractors like it that way. For their part, and contrary to their rhetoric, Rhee, Henderson, and McGoldrick passed on many opportunities to make their system more transparent and accountable.

Education policy will not improve until control of the evidence is ceded to genuinely independent third parties, hired neither by the public education establishment nor by the education reform club.

The author gratefully acknowledges the fact-checking assistance of Erich Martel and Mary Levy.

Access this testimonial in .pdf format

Citation:  Phelps, R. P. (2020, September). Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, Part 2: Test Cheats. Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials.

[1] A perusal of Caveon’s website clarifies that their mission is to help their clients–state and local education departments–not get caught. Sometimes this means not cheating in the first place; other times it might mean something else. One might argue that, ironically, Caveon could be helping its clients to cheat in more sophisticated ways and cover their tracks better.

[2] Among them: test booklets should be sealed until the students open them and resealed by the students immediately after; and students should be assigned seats on test day and a seating chart submitted to test coordinators (necessary for verifying cluster patterns in student responses that would suggest answer copying).

[3] Yes, for those new to the area, the District of Columbia has an Office of the “State” Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Its domain of relationships includes not just the regular public schools (i.e., DCPS), but also other public schools (i.e., charters) and private schools. Practically, it primarily serves as a conduit for funneling money from a menagerie of federal education-related grant and aid programs

What did Education Reform in DC Actually Mean?

Short answer: nothing that would actually help students or teachers. But it’s made for well-padded resumes for a handful of insiders.

This is an important review, by the then-director of assessment. His criticisms echo the points that I have been making along with Mary Levy, Erich Martel, Adell Cothorne, and many others.

Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials

Access this testimonial in .pdf format

Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, 

Part 1: The Grand Tour

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary

My primary task was to design an expansion of that testing program that served the IMPACT teacher evaluation system to include all core subjects and all grade levels. Despite its fame (or infamy), the test score aspect of the IMPACT program affected only 13% of teachers, those teaching either reading or math in grades four through eight. Only those subjects and grade levels included the requisite pre- and post-tests required for teacher “value added” measurements (VAM). Not included were most subjects (e.g., science, social studies, art, music, physical education), grades kindergarten to two, and high school.

Chancellor Rhee wanted many more teachers included. So, I designed a system that would cover more than half the DCPS teacher force, from kindergarten through high school. You haven’t heard about it because it never happened. The newly elected Vincent Gray had promised during his mayoral campaign to reduce the amount of testing; the proposed expansion would have increased it fourfold.

VAM affected teachers’ jobs. A low value-added score could lead to termination; a high score, to promotion and a cash bonus. VAM as it was then structured was obviously, glaringly flawed,[1] as anyone with a strong background in educational testing could have seen. Unfortunately, among the many new central office hires from the elite of ed reform circles, none had such a background.

Before posting a request for proposals from commercial test developers for the testing expansion plan, I was instructed to survey two groups of stakeholders—central office managers and school-level teachers and administrators.

Not surprisingly, some of the central office managers consulted requested additions or changes to the proposed testing program where they thought it would benefit their domain of responsibility. The net effect on school-level personnel would have been to add to their administrative burden. Nonetheless, all requests from central office managers would be honored. 

The Grand Tour

At about the same time, over several weeks of the late Spring and early Summer of 2010, along with a bright summer intern, I visited a dozen DCPS schools. The alleged purpose was to collect feedback on the design of the expanded testing program. I enjoyed these meetings. They were informative, animated, and very well attended. School staff appreciated the apparent opportunity to contribute to policy decisions and tried to make the most of it.

Each school greeted us with a full complement of faculty and staff on their days off, numbering a several dozen educators at some venues. They believed what we had told them: that we were in the process of redesigning the DCPS assessment program and were genuinely interested in their suggestions for how best to do it. 

At no venue did we encounter stand-pat knee-jerk rejection of education reform efforts. Some educators were avowed advocates for the Rhee administration’s reform policies, but most were basically dedicated educators determined to do what was best for their community within the current context. 

The Grand Tour was insightful, too. I learned for the first time of certain aspects of DCPS’s assessment system that were essential to consider in its proper design, aspects of which the higher-ups in the DCPS Central Office either were not aware or did not consider relevant. 

The group of visited schools represented DCPS as a whole in appropriate proportions geographically, ethnically, and by education level (i.e., primary, middle, and high). Within those parameters, however, only schools with “friendly” administrations were chosen. That is, we only visited schools with principals and staff openly supportive of the Rhee-Henderson agenda. 

But even they desired changes to the testing program, whether or not it was expanded. Their suggestions covered both the annual districtwide DC-CAS (or “comprehensive” assessment system), on which the teacher evaluation system was based, and the DC-BAS (or “benchmarking” assessment system), a series of four annual “no-stakes” interim tests unique to DCPS, ostensibly offered to help prepare students and teachers for the consequential-for-some-school-staff DC-CAS.[2]

At each staff meeting I asked for a show of hands on several issues of interest that I thought were actionable. Some suggestions for program changes received close to unanimous support. Allow me to describe several.

1. Move DC-CAS test administration later in the school year. Many citizens may have logically assumed that the IMPACT teacher evaluation numbers were calculated from a standard pre-post test schedule, testing a teacher’s students at the beginning of their academic year together and then again at the end. In 2010, however, the DC-CAS was administered in March, three months before school year end. Moreover, that single administration of the test served as both pre- and post-test, posttest for the current school year and pretest for the following school year. Thus, before a teacher even met their new students in late August or early September, almost half of the year for which teachers were judged had already transpired—the three months in the Spring spent with the previous year’s teacher and almost three months of summer vacation. 

School staff recommended pushing DC-CAS administration to later in the school year. Furthermore, they advocated a genuine pre-post-test administration schedule—pre-test the students in late August–early September and post-test them in late-May–early June—to cover a teacher’s actual span of time with the students.

This suggestion was rejected because the test development firm with the DC-CAS contract required three months to score some portions of the test in time for the IMPACT teacher ratings scheduled for early July delivery, before the start of the new school year. Some small number of teachers would be terminated based on their IMPACT scores, so management demanded those scores be available before preparations for the new school year began.[3] The tail wagged the dog.

2. Add some stakes to the DC-CAS in the upper grades. Because DC-CAS test scores portended consequences for teachers but none for students, some students expended little effort on the test. Indeed, extensive research on “no-stakes” (for students) tests reveal that motivation and effort vary by a range of factors including gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, the weather, and age. Generally, the older the student, the lower the test-taking effort. This disadvantaged some teachers in the IMPACT ratings for circumstances beyond their control: unlucky student demographics. 

Central office management rejected this suggestion to add even modest stakes to the upper grades’ DC-CAS; no reason given. 

3. Move one of the DC-BAS tests to year end. If management rejected the suggestion to move DC-CAS test administration to the end of the school year, school staff suggested scheduling one of the no-stakes DC-BAS benchmarking tests for late May–early June. As it was, the schedule squeezed all four benchmarking test administrations between early September and mid-February. Moving just one of them to the end of the year would give the following year’s teachers a more recent reading (by more than three months) of their new students’ academic levels and needs.

Central Office management rejected this suggestion probably because the real purpose of the DC-BAS was not to help teachers understand their students’ academic levels and needs, as the following will explain.

4. Change DC-BAS tests so they cover recently taught content. Many DC citizens probably assumed that, like most tests, the DC-BAS interim tests covered recently taught content, such as that covered since the previous test administration. Not so in 2010. The first annual DC-BAS was administered in early September, just after the year’s courses commenced. Moreover, it covered the same content domain—that for the entirety of the school year—as each of the next three DC-BAS tests. 

School staff proposed changing the full-year “comprehensive” content coverage of each DC-BAS test to partial-year “cumulative” coverage, so students would only be tested on what they had been taught prior to each test administration.

This suggestion, too, was rejected. Testing the same full-year comprehensive content domain produced a predictable, flattering score rise. With each DC-BAS test administration, students recognized more of the content, because they had just been exposed to more of it, so average scores predictably rose. With test scores always rising, it looked like student achievement improved steadily each year. Achieving this contrived score increase required testing students on some material to which they had not yet been exposed, both a violation of professional testing standards and a poor method for instilling student confidence. (Of course, it was also less expensive to administer essentially the same test four times a year than to develop four genuinely different tests.)

5. Synchronize the sequencing of curricular content across the District. DCPS management rhetoric circa 2010 attributed classroom-level benefits to the testing program. Teachers would know more about their students’ levels and needs and could also learn from each other. Yet, the only student test results teachers received at the beginning of each school year was half-a-year old, and most of the information they received over the course of four DC-BAS test administrations was based on not-yet-taught content.

As for cross-district teacher cooperation, unfortunately there was no cross-District coordination of common curricular sequences. Each teacher paced their subject matter however they wished and varied topical emphases according to their own personal preference.

It took DCPS’s Chief Academic Officer, Carey Wright, and her chief of staff, Dan Gordon, less than a minute to reject the suggestion to standardize topical sequencing across schools so that teachers could consult with one another in real time. Tallying up the votes: several hundred school-level District educators favored the proposal, two of Rhee’s trusted lieutenants opposed it. It lost.

6. Offer and require a keyboarding course in the early grades. DCPS was planning to convert all its testing from paper-and-pencil mode to computer delivery within a few years. Yet, keyboarding courses were rare in the early grades. Obviously, without systemwide keyboarding training in computer use some students would be at a disadvantage in computer testing.

Suggestion rejected.

In all, I had polled over 500 DCPS school staff. Not only were all of their suggestions reasonable, some were essential in order to comply with professional assessment standards and ethics. 

Nonetheless, back at DCPS’ Central Office, each suggestion was rejected without, to my observation, any serious consideration. The rejecters included Chancellor Rhee, the head of the office of Data and Accountability—the self-titled “Data Lady,” Erin McGoldrick—and the head of the curriculum and instruction division, Carey Wright, and her chief deputy, Dan Gordon. 

Four central office staff outvoted several-hundred school staff (and my recommendations as assessment director). In each case, the changes recommended would have meant some additional work on their parts, but in return for substantial improvements in the testing program. Their rhetoric was all about helping teachers and students; but the facts were that the testing program wasn’t structured to help them.

What was the purpose of my several weeks of school visits and staff polling? To solicit “buy in” from school level staff, not feedback.

Ultimately, the new testing program proposal would incorporate all the new features requested by senior Central Office staff, no matter how burdensome, and not a single feature requested by several hundred supportive school-level staff, no matter how helpful. Like many others, I had hoped that the education reform intention of the Rhee-Henderson years was genuine. DCPS could certainly have benefitted from some genuine reform. 

Alas, much of the activity labelled “reform” was just for show, and for padding resumes. Numerous central office managers would later work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Numerous others would work for entities supported by the Gates or aligned foundations, or in jurisdictions such as Louisiana, where ed reformers held political power. Most would be well paid. 

Their genuine accomplishments, or lack thereof, while at DCPS seemed to matter little. What mattered was the appearance of accomplishment and, above all, loyalty to the group. That loyalty required going along to get along: complicity in maintaining the façade of success while withholding any public criticism of or disagreement with other in-group members.

Unfortunately, in the United States what is commonly showcased as education reform is neither a civic enterprise nor a popular movement. Neither parents, the public, nor school-level educators have any direct influence. Rather, at the national level, US education reform is an elite, private club—a small group of tightly-connected politicos and academicsa mutual admiration society dedicated to the career advancement, political influence, and financial benefit of its members, supported by a gaggle of wealthy foundations (e.g., Gates, Walton, Broad, Wallace, Hewlett, Smith-Richardson). 

For over a decade, The Ed Reform Club exploited DC for its own benefit. Local elite formed the DC Public Education Fund (DCPEF) to sponsor education projects, such as IMPACT, which they deemed worthy. In the negotiations between the Washington Teachers’ Union and DCPS concluded in 2010, DCPEF arranged a 3 year grant of $64.5M from the Arnold, Broad, Robertson and Walton Foundations to fund a 5-year retroactive teacher pay raise in return for contract language allowing teacher excessing tied to IMPACT, which Rhee promised would lead to annual student test score increases by 2012. Projected goals were not metfoundation support continued nonetheless.

Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee) now chairs the board of a charter school chain in California and occasionally collects $30,000+ in speaker fees but, otherwise, seems to have deliberately withdrawn from the limelight. Despite contributing her own additional scandalsafter she assumed the DCPS Chancellorship, Kaya Henderson ascended to great fame and glory with a “distinguished professorship” at Georgetown; honorary degrees from Georgetown and Catholic Universities; gigs with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Broad Leadership Academy, and Teach for All; and board memberships with The Aspen Institute, The College Board, Robin Hood NYC, and Teach For America. Carey Wright is now state superintendent in Mississippi. Dan Gordon runs a 30-person consulting firm, Education Counsel that strategically partners with major players in US education policy. The manager of the IMPACT teacher evaluation program, Jason Kamras, now works as Superintendent of the Richmond, VA public schools. 

Arguably the person most directly responsible for the recurring assessment system fiascos of the Rhee-Henderson years, then Chief of Data and Accountability Erin McGoldrick, now specializes in “data innovation” as partner and chief operating officer at an education management consulting firm. Her firm, Kitamba, strategically partners with its own panoply of major players in US education policy. Its list of recent clients includes the DC Public Charter School Board and DCPS.

If the ambitious DC central office folk who gaudily declared themselves leading education reformers were not really, who were the genuine education reformers during the Rhee-Henderson decade of massive upheaval and per-student expenditures three times those in the state of Utah? They were the school principals and staff whose practical suggestions were ignored by central office glitterati. They were whistleblowers like history teacher Erich Martel who had documented DCPS’ student records’ manipulation and phony graduation rates years before the Washington Post’s celebrated investigation of Ballou High School, and was demoted and then “excessed” by Henderson. Or, school principal Adell Cothorne, who spilled the beans on test answer sheet “erasure parties” at Noyes Education Campus and lost her job under Rhee. 

Real reformers with “skin in the game” can’t play it safe.

The author appreciates the helpful comments of Mary Levy and Erich Martel in researching this article. 

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More Problems With Value-Added Measurements for Teachers

I finally got around to reading and skimming the MATHEMATICA reports on VAM for schools and individual teachers in DCPS.

At first blush, it’s pretty impressive mathematical and statistical work. It looks like they were very careful to take care of lots of possible problems, and they have lots of nice greek letters and very learned and complicated mathematical formulas, with tables giving the values of many of the variables in their model. They even use large words like heteroscedasticity to scare off those not really adept at professional statistics (which would include even me). See pages 12 – 20 for examples of this mathematics of intimidation, as John Ewing of MfA and the AMS has described it. Here is one such learned equation:
value added equation
However clever and complex a model might be, it needs to do a good job of explaining and describing reality, or it’s just another failed hypothesis that needs to be rejected (like the theories of the 4 humours or the Aether). One needs to actually compare its track record with the real world and see how well the model compares with the real world.
Which is precisely what these authors do NOT do, even though they claim that “for teachers with the lowest possible IMPACT score in math — the bottom 3.6 percent of DCPS teachers — one can say with at least 99.9 percent confidence that these teachers were below average in 2010.” (p. 5)
Among other things, such a model would need to be consistent over time, i.e., reliable. Every indication I have seen, including in other cities that the authors themselves cite (NYC–see p. 2 of the 2010 report) indicates that individual value-added scores for a given teacher jump around randomly from year to year in cases of a teacher working at the exact same school, exact same grade level, exact same subject; or in cases of a teacher teaching 2 grade levels in the same school; or in cases of a teacher teaching 2 subjects, during the same year. Those correlations appear to be in the range of 0.2 to 0.3, which is frankly not enough to judge who is worth receiving large cash bonuses or a pink slip.
Unless something obvious escaped me, the authors do not appear to mention any study of how teachers’ IVA scores vary over time or from class to class, even though they had every student’s DC-CAS scores from 2007 through the present (see footnote, page 7).
In neither report do they acknowledge the possibility of cheating by adults (or students).
They do acknowledge on page 2 that a 2008 study found low correlations between proficiency gains and value-added estimates for individual schools in DCPS from 2005-2007. They attempt to explain that low correlation by “changes in the compositions of students from one year to the next” — which I doubt. I suspect it’s that neither one is a very good measure.
They also don’t mention anything about correlations between value-added scores and classroom-observations scores. From the one year of data that I received, this correlation is also very low. It is possible that this correlation is tighter today than it used to be, but I would be willing to wager tickets to a professional DC basketball, hockey, or soccer game that it’s not over 0.4.
The authors acknowledge that “[t]he DC CAS is not specifically designed for users to compare gains across grades.” Which means, they probably shouldn’t be doing it. It’s also the case that many, many people do not feel that the DC-CAS does a very good job of measuring much of anything useful except the socio-economic status of the student’s parents.
In any case, the mathematical model they have made may be wonderful, but real data so far suggests that it does not predict anything useful about teaching and learning.
Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 11:08 am  Comments (2)  
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What I actually had time to say …

Since I had to abbreviate my remarks, here is what I actually said:

I am Guy Brandenburg, retired DCPS mathematics teacher.

To depart from my text, I want to start by proposing a solution: look hard at the collaborative assessment model being used a few miles away in Montgomery County [MD] and follow the advice of Edwards Deming.

Even though I personally retired before [the establishment of the] IMPACT [teacher evaluation system], I want to use statistics and graphs to show that the Value-Added measurements that are used to evaluate teachers are unreliable, invalid, and do not help teachers improve instruction. To the contrary: IVA measurements are driving a number of excellent, veteran teachers to resign or be fired from DCPS to go elsewhere.

Celebrated mathematician John Ewing says that VAM is “mathematical intimidation” and a “modern, mathematical version of the Emperor’s New Clothes.”

I agree.

One of my colleagues was able to pry the value-added formula [used in DC] from [DC data honcho] Jason Kamras after SIX MONTHS of back-and-forth emails. [Here it is:]

value added formula for dcps - in mathtype format

One problem with that formula is that nobody outside a small group of highly-paid consultants has any idea what are the values of any of those variables.

In not a single case has the [DCPS] Office of Data and Accountability sat down with a teacher and explained, in detail, exactly how a teacher’s score is calculated, student by student and class by class.

Nor has that office shared that data with the Washington Teachers’ Union.

I would ask you, Mr. Catania, to ask the Office of Data and Accountability to share with the WTU all IMPACT scores for every single teacher, including all the sub-scores, for every single class a teacher has.

Now let’s look at some statistics.

My first graph is completely random data points that I had Excel make up for me [and plot as x-y pairs].

pic 3 - completely random points

Notice that even though these are completely random, Excel still found a small correlation: r-squared was about 0.08 and r was about 29%.

Now let’s look at a very strong case of negative correlation in the real world: poverty rates and student achievement in Nebraska:

pic  4 - nebraska poverty vs achievement

The next graph is for the same sort of thing in Wisconsin:

pic 5 - wisconsin poverty vs achievement

Again, quite a strong correlation, just as we see here in Washington, DC:

pic 6 - poverty vs proficiency in DC

Now, how about those Value-Added scores? Do they correlate with classroom observations?

Mostly, we don’t know, because the data is kept secret. However, someone leaked to me the IVA and classroom observation scores for [DCPS in] SY 2009-10, and I plotted them [as you can see below].

pic 7 - VAM versus TLF in DC IMPACT 2009-10

I would say this looks pretty much no correlation at all. It certainly gives teachers no assistance on what to improve in order to help their students learn better.

And how stable are Value-Added measurements [in DCPS] over time? Unfortunately, since DCPS keeps all the data hidden, we don’t know how stable these scores are here. However, the New York Times leaked the value-added data for NYC teachers for several years, and we can look at those scores to [find out]. Here is one such graph [showing how the same teachers, in the same schools, scored in 2008-9 versus 2009-10]:

pic 8 - value added for 2 successive years Rubenstein NYC

That is very close to random.

How about teachers who teach the same subject to two different grade levels, say, fourth-grade math and fifth-grade math? Again, random points:

pic 9 - VAM for same subject different grades NYC rubenstein

One last point:

Mayor Gray and chancellors Henderson and Rhee all claim that education in DC only started improving after mayoral control of the schools, starting in 2007. Look for yourself [in the next two graphs].

pic 11 - naep 8th grade math avge scale scores since 1990 many states incl dc


pic 12 naep 4th grade reading scale scores since 1993 many states incl dc

Notice that gains began almost 20 years ago, long before mayoral control or chancellors Rhee and Henderson, long before IMPACT.

To repeat, I suggest that we throw out IMPACT and look hard at the ideas of Edwards Deming and the assessment models used in Montgomery County.

The Correlation Between ‘Value-Added’ Scores and Observation Scores in DCPS under IMPACT is, in fact, Exceedingly Weak

As I suspected, there is nearly no correlation between the scores obtained by DCPS teachers on two critical measures.

I know this because someone leaked me a copy of the entire summary spreadsheet, which I will post on the web at Google Docs shortly.

As usual, a scatter plot does an excellent job of showing how ridiculous the entire IMPACT evaluation system is. It doesn’t predict anything to speak of.

Here is the first graph.

Notice that the r^2 value is quite low: 0.1233, or about 12%. Not quite a random distribution, but fairly close. Certainly not something that should be used to decide whether someone gets to keep their job or earn a bonus.

The Aspen Institute study apparently used R rather than r*2; they reported R values of about 0.35, which is about what you get when you take the square root of 0.1233.

Here is the second graph, which plots teachers’ ranks on the classroom observations versus their ranks on the Value Added scores. Do you see any correlation?


Remember, this is the correlation that Jason Kamras said was quite strong.

Excellent DCPS Teacher Fired For Low Value-Added Scores — Because of Cheating?

You really need to read this article in today’s Washington Post, by Bill Turque. It describes the situation of Sarah Wysocki, a teacher at MacFarland, who was given excellent evaluations by her administrators during her second year; but since her “Value-Added” scores were low for the second year in a row, she was fired.–motivating-and-fired/2012/02/04/gIQAwzZpvR_story.html


Ms. Wysocki raises the possibility that someone cheated at Barnard, the school where a lot of her students had attended the previous year; she said that there were students who scored “advanced” in reading who could, in fact, not read at all.

Curious, I looked at the OSSE data for Barnard and found that the percentages of “advanced” students in grades 3 and 4 had what looks to me to be some rather suspicious drops from SY2009-10 to SY 2010-2011, at a school that apparently has a 70% to 80% free-or-reduced-price lunch population:

Grade 3, reading, 2010: 11% “advanced” but only 3% the next year;

Grade 4, reading, 2010: 29% “advanced”, but only 7% the next year.

Ms. Wysocki raised the accusation of cheating, but, as usual, DCPS administration put a bunch of roadblocks in the way and deliberately failed to investigate.

And naturally, Jason Kamras thinks he’s doing a peachy job and that there is nothing wrong with IMPACT or DC’s method of doing value-added computations.

Published in: on March 7, 2012 at 10:38 am  Comments (5)  
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Why One Teacher Quit DCPS Rather Than Continue Under IMPACT’s VAM

A very poignant commentary on how the rise of IMPACT has, in fact, ruined education in Washington, DC public schools. A few paragraphs:

“Before last school year, I had worked crazy hours and given up much of my life for work, but only because I loved my job and really believed in what I was doing.  Last year, my mindset was completely different.  I started doing everything I was doing because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t do those things.  I was no longer motivated by a passion for teaching and learning, nor was I trying to develop myself into the great teacher I had once dreamed of becoming; I was motivated by a fear of being stigmatized a loser, and I was trying to do whatever it would take not to be considered one.

“Not to give away the ending to my story, but in this process I burnt out and lost faith in what I was doing in teaching.  I grew tired of caring so much about a test that I didn’t really care that much about.  I became frustrated with having to pass up opportunities to teach skills and concepts that I really thought my students needed to learn in order to teach them things I knew they were going to be tested on.  I couldn’t stand the taskmaster role I had to take on as a teacher.  Basically, I became sick of caring too much about all of the wrong things, and not enough about the things that really mattered.
In my quest to prove my worth and value, I started to feel worthless and easily replaceable.  Even worse, I felt like I was being told at every opportunity possible by the district to do this or that better.  And they weren’t telling me to do the things I knew I should be doing – if anything, the system seemed to be encouraging my worst behaviors, and seemingly suggesting I might even want to do them more intensely.  At every turn, I was presented with more data, more practice test scores, and more suggestions for how I might do things differently in order to get those test scores even further up. “
The rest of the article is here:
Published in: on January 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm  Comments (2)  
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DCPS Administrators Won’t or Can’t Give a DCPS Teacher the IMPACT Value-Added Algorithm

Does this sound familiar?

A veteran DCPS math teacher at Hardy MS has been asking DCPS top administrator Jason Kamras for details, in writing, on exactly how the “Value-Added” portion of IMPACT teacher evaluation system is calculated for teachers. To date, she has still not received an answer.

How the “Value-Added” portion of the IMPACT actually works is rather important: for a lot of teachers, it’s about half of their annual score. The general outline of the VAM is explained in the IMPACT documents, but none of the details. Supposedly, all of the scores of all of a teachers’ students’ in April are compared with all of those same students’ scores last April; and then, the socio-economic status and current achievement scores of those students are taken into account somehow, and the teacher is labeled with a single number that supposedly shows how his or her students gained during that year with respect to all other similar students.

But how those comparisons are made is totally unclear. So far  I have heard that the algorithm, or mathematical procedure, that has been used is designed to make it so that exactly half of all teachers are deemed, in non-technical terms, ‘below average’ in that regard — which of course will set them up to be fired sooner or later. Whether that’s an accurate description of the algorithm, I don’t know. Ms. Bax told me that she heard that DCPS expects that teachers with almost all Below-Basic students would be expected to achieve tremendous gains with their students. However, my own educational research indicates the opposite.

In any case, Kamras and his other staff haven’t put any details in writing. Yet.

At one place Kamras writes that “we use a regression equation to determine this score.” OK, Bax and Kamras and I all teach or taught math. We all understand a fair amount about regression equations. But there are lots of such equations! Just saying that there is a regression equation is involved is like saying Newton “used algebraic equations” in writing “Principia Mathematica”, or that Tolstoy used “words and sentences” when he wrote “War and Peace.” And just about equally informative.

I attach a series of emails between Ms. Bax, an 8th grade math teacher, and Mr. Kamras and a few other people in DCPS Central Administration. The emails were supplied to me, in frustration, by Ms. Bax. I used color to try to make it clear who was writing what: Green is Ms. Bax, and reds and browns and pinks denote those written by for various administrators. Note that this exchange of emails started in September of 2010.

Perhaps publicizing this exchange might prod Mr. Kamras to reveal details on a system that has already shown by Mathematica (the same group that designed the system) to be highly flawed and unreliable?


From: “Bax, Sarah (MS)” <> Date: Mon, 13 Sep 2010 17:12:41 -0400

To: Jason Kamras Subject: Impact


I hope the year is off to a great start for you.

I am writing concerning the IMPACT IVA score calculations.  I am very  frustrated with this process on a number of fronts.  First, I would like to have an actual explanation of how the growth scores are calculated. As they have been explained, the process seems quite flawed in actually measuring teacher effectiveness.  Further, I would like to know if teachers have any recourse in having their scores reexamined, etc.

Last year, 89% of the eighth graders at Hardy scored in the Proficient or Advanced range in Mathematics.  As the sole eighth grade mathematics teacher last year, I taught almost all of the students except for a handful that were pulled for special education services.  Beyond this accomplishment, I am extremely proud to report that 89% of our Black students were at that Proficient or Advanced level.

With statistics like these, I take issue with a report that scores my IVA at 3.4 (to add insult to this injury, even under your system if my students had earned just one-tenth more of a growth point, my IVA would be a 3.5 and I would be considered highly effective).

Frankly, I teach among the best of the best in DCPS– with very few of us rated highly effective.  The IMPACT scoring system has had a terrific negative impact on morale at our school.


Sarah Bax


From: Kamras, Jason (MS) Sent: Tue 9/14/2010 7:50 AM To: Bax, Sarah (MS) Subject: Re: Impact

Hi Sarah,

I’m disappointed to hear how frustrated you are. Can you give me a call at 202-321-1248 to discuss?



Jason Kamras

Director, Teacher Human Capital



I really do not have the time to call to discuss my concerns.  If you would forward the requested information regarding specific explanation about the growth scores calculation process I would be most obliged.

I would like specifics about the equation.  Please forward my inquiry to one of your technical experts so that he or she may email me with additional information about the mathematical model.




From: Barber, Yolanda (OOC) Sent: Mon 12/20/2010 2:12 PM To: Bax, Sarah (MS)

Subject: FW: IMPACT Question

Ms. Bax,

Sorry for the barrage of emails, but I received a response concerning your question.  Please read the response below.  I hope this helps.  Please let me know if you’d like to continue with our session on the 4th.  Thanks again.


Yolanda Barber

Master Educator | Secondary Mathematics

District of Columbia Public Schools

Office of the Chancellor


From: Rodberg, Simon (OOC) Sent: Monday, December 20, 2010 2:05 PM

To: Barber, Yolanda (OOC); Lindy, Benjamin (DCPS); Gregory, Anna (OOC) Subject: RE: IMPACT Question

Hi Yolanda,

We will be doing more training, including full information on Ms. Bax’s question, this spring. We’d like to give a coherent, full explanation at that time rather than give piecemeal  answers to questions in the meantime.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy your break.


Simon Rodberg

Manager, IMPACT Design, Office of Human Capital



I got notice a couple of weeks ago that I have jury duty on your office hours day at Hardy so I won’t be able to make the appointment.  I’m sorry to miss you, but appreciate your efforts to send my concerns to the appropriate office.

The response below is obviously no help at all as it clearly indicates the Office of Human Capital is unwilling to answer my specific question regarding the calculations involved in determining my rating.  I believe my only request was to have an accurate description of how the expected growth score is calculated.  My question has been left unanswered since last spring.  Can you imagine if a student of mine asked how his or her grade was determined and I told them I couldn’t provide a coherent explanation right now, but see me in a year?

Thanks again for your help.  I look forward to meeting you in person in the future!




From: Bax, Sarah (MS) Sent: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 11:09 AM To: Rodberg, Simon (OOC)

Cc: Henderson, Kaya (OOC) Subject: FW: Appointment #80 (from DCPS Master Educator Office Hours Signup)

Mr. Rodberg,

I am requesting a response to my inquiry below:    ‘explanation of actual algorithm to determine predicted growth score’.


S. Bax


Ms. Bax,

What’s a good phone number to reach you on? I think it would be easiest to explain over the phone.

Thank you, and happy holidays.


Simon Rodberg

Manager, IMPACT Design, Office of Human Capital


From: Kamras, Jason (DCPS) [] Sent: Sun 12/26/2010 1:42 PM

To: Bax, Sarah (MS) Cc: Henderson, Kaya (OOC) Subject: Value-added calculation

Hi Sarah,

The Chancellor informed me that you’re looking for a more detailed explanation of how your “predicted” score is calculated. In short, we use a regression equation to determine this score. If you’d like to know more about the specifics of the equation, please let me know and I can set up a time for your to meet with our technical experts.

Happy New Year!


Jason Kamras

Chief, Office of Human Capital


On 12/27/10 12:17 PM, “Bax, Sarah (DCPS-MS)” <> wrote:


I have requested an explanation of the value-added calculation since September, with my initial request beginning with you (see email exchange pasted below).  I would like specifics about the equation.  Please forward my inquiry to one of your technical experts so that he or she may email me with additional information about the mathematical model.




On 12/27/10 12:23 PM, “Kamras, Jason (DCPS)” <> wrote:

My deepest apologies, Sarah. I’ll set this up as soon as I get back.

Jason Kamras

Chief, Office of Human Capital

—–Original Message—–

From: Kamras, Jason (DCPS) [] Sent: Tue 1/25/2011 11:02 PM

To: Bax, Sarah (MS) Subject: FW: Value-added calculation

Hi Sarah,

I just wanted to follow up on this. When could we get together to go over the equation?

Hope you’re well,


Jason Kamras

Chief, Office of Human Capital


From: Bax, Sarah (MS) Sent: Fri 1/28/2011 1:15 PM To: Kamras, Jason (DCPS)

Subject: RE: Value-added calculation


I really would just like something in writing that I can go over– and then I could contact you if I have questions.  It is difficult to carve out meeting time in my schedule.




From: “Bax, Sarah (DCPS-MS)” <> Date: Thu, 10 Feb 2011 14:05:43 -0500

To: Jason Kamras <> Subject: FW: Value-added calculation


I didn’t hear back from you after this last email.




From: Kamras, Jason (DCPS) [] Sent: Thu 2/10/2011 6:00 PM

To: Bax, Sarah (MS) Subject: Re: Value-added calculation

Ugh. So sorry, Sarah. The only thing we have in writing is the technical report, which is being finalized. It should be available on our website this spring. Of course, let me know if you’d like to meet before then.



Jason Kamras

Chief, Office of Human Capital


On Feb 25, 2011, at 9:29 PM, “Bax, Sarah (MS)” <> wrote:


How do you justify evaluating people by a measure [for] which you are unable to provide explanation?



Sat, February 26, 2011 11:25:33 AM


To be clear, we can certainly explain how the value-added calculation works. However, you’ve asked for a level of detail that is best explained by our technical partner, Mathematica Policy Research. When I offered you the opportunity to sit down with them, you declined.

As I have also noted previously, the detail you seek will be available in the formal Technical Report, which is being finalized and will be posted to our website in May. I very much look forward to the release, as I think you’ll be pleased by the thoughtfulness and statistical rigor that have guided our work in this area.

Finally, let me add that our model has been vetted and approved by a Technical Advisory Board of leading academics from around the country. We take this work very seriously, which is why we have subjected it to such extensive technical scrutiny.


Jason Kamras
Chief, Office of Human Capital


To be clear, I did not decline the opportunity to speak with your technical partner.  On December 27th I wrote to you, “I would like specifics about the equation.  Please forward my inquiry to one of your technical experts so that he or she may email me with additional information about the mathematical model.” I never received a response to this request.

In addition, both you and Mr. Rodberg offered to provide information about the equation to me on the phone or in person, but have yet to agree to send any information in writing.  You have stated, “I just wanted to follow up on this.
When could we get together to go over the equation?”  Mr. Rodberg wrote, “What’s a good phone number to reach you on? I think it would be easiest to explain over the phone.”

Why not transpose the explanation you would offer verbally to an email?  Please send in writing the information that you do know about how the predicted growth score is calculated.  For instance, I would expect you are familiar with what variables are considered and which data sources are used to determine their value.  Let me know what you would tell me if I were to meet with you.

As a former teacher, you must realize the difficulty in arranging actual face-time meetings given my teaching duties.  And as a former mathematics teacher, I would imagine you could identify with my desire to have an understanding of the quantitative components of my evaluation.


Published in: on February 27, 2011 at 8:59 pm  Comments (23)  
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