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For years now, Washington, D.C., school officials have been under pressure to fully investigate allegations of inflated test scores, cheating and possibly a cover up. At the center of it all is Michelle Rhee. She's the fiery former school chancellor who based much of her success on dramatic gains in kids' reading and math scores. Those gains are now suspect. And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, questions about what really happened just won't go away.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: John Merrow, education correspondent for the PBS program "NewsHour," recently stirred renewed interest in a possible cheating scandal in Washington, D.C., schools after he uncovered a long-lost memo. The memo, labeled "sensitive information, treat as confidential," raised concerns about test answers that had been changed from wrong to right in roughly half of the city's schools, in 2008.
Dr. Fay "Sandy" Sanford, a consultant hired by the school district, wrote the memo, warning that the high rate of erasures on tests in at least 70 schools was a more serious problem than school officials were admitting. And yet, says Merrow, there's never been a thorough investigation.
JOHN MERROW: If someone had the will to find out what happened in 2008, the data's still there. It's pretty clear there was some erasing going on. But someone should look at the failure to investigate.
SANCHEZ: Merrow says an investigation would have put then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee's policies under scrutiny, and perhaps tainted her status as the nation's toughest, most celebrated reformer.
MERROW: They didn't want to get at the truth then.
SANCHEZ: The question is, do school officials want to get at the truth today?
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DAVID CATANIA: Good morning, everyone. My name is David Catania...
SANCHEZ: D.C. Councilman David Catania recently held a hearing on the issue of cheating, but the only person he could ask about the controversial Sanford memo was Rhee's top lieutenant, now Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
CATANIA: Chancellor Henderson, when did you first learn of this memo?
KAYA HENDERSON: January of 2013. John Merrow reported of it, and I had to ask my staff, what is the Sandy Sanford memo? Can I see it? None of us knew about the memo before.
SANCHEZ: Henderson's former boss, Michelle Rhee, did not respond to NPR's request for an interview for this story. But in previous statements, she, too, has said, quote, "I do not recall the memo," end of quote.
MERROW: Somebody is lying.
SANCHEZ: Again, John Merrow.
MERROW: I have a reliable source saying that in 2009, this source was in meetings where both then-Deputy Chancellor Henderson and Chancellor Michelle Rhee talked about the memo, planning what to do and that sort of thing.
SANCHEZ: When the allegations of cheating first surfaced in the fall of 2008, school officials asked the district's testing vendor, McGraw-Hill, to analyze the high rate of erasures. The district then asked Sandy Sanford for his analysis, which he wanted to keep strictly confidential. Again, Kaya Henderson.
HENDERSON: We were instructed not to investigate the 2008 erasures because they were inconclusive - because they had these discrepancies.
SANCHEZ: With the cheating allegations apparently behind them, district officials reported impressive gains in reading and math scores for the 2009-2010 school year. Chancellor Michelle Rhee personally presented $1.5 million dollars in bonuses to the schools with the biggest gains.
The cheating allegations, though, persisted, forcing the district to hire a private company, Caveon, to conduct a test security audit at schools flagged for unusual rates of erasures on the 2009 tests. Here's the president of Caveon Consulting Services, Dr. John Fremer, on the company's website. He's talking to a USA Today reporter about Caveon's $100,000 contract to examine test security.
DR. JOHN FREMER: D.C. Public Schools wanted an independent agency to go out, to see if there was anything about what was going on in those schools, and in those classes, that seemed inconsistent with the testing rules and a possible explanation.
SANCHEZ: Caveon found no evidence of cheating. But Fremer has since clarified that his company only conducted an audit, not a thorough investigation of erasures. Enter USA Today. On March 2011, the newspaper published an investigative series about the alleged cheating. Reporters reviewed test scores from 2008 to 2010, and found that in at least 103 schools, the wrong test answers had been erased and replaced with the right answers.
But when D.C.'s inspector general and the U.S. Department of Education looked into the matter, they decided there was insufficient evidence to conclude that cheating was widespread - a point that Henderson made repeatedly during D.C. Councilman Catania's hearing.
HENDERSON: Each of the six investigations that have occurred in past four years, have come to the same conclusion. There is no evidence of widespread cheating at DCPS. We simply do not tolerate cheating.
SANCHEZ: As for the charge that school officials have never conducted a serious analysis of the erasures on tests, and that an investigation by the district's inspector general was a sham...
CHARLES WILLOUGHBY: I do dispute it strongly.
SANCHEZ: Charles Willoughby, the district's inspector general, testified during Councilman Catania's hearing that his investigation had been thorough. But what he found...
WILLOUGHBY: Was not a sufficient basis to conclude that the erasures resulted from cheating.
SANCHEZ: Journalist John Merrow says Willoughby spent 17 months looking at just one school - that's it.
MERROW: The fair question is, why is this important? It's important because those erasures, smudges, aren't just smudges. Those are real kids.
SANCHEZ: And if their test scores were inflated, those kids did not get the help they needed. As for Michelle Rhee, the organization she founded, StudentsFirst, has raised millions of dollars in private money to push high-stakes testing policies in 25 states; policies identical to those she introduced in Washington, D.C.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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