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Michelle Rhee Apologizes for Insulting Reaction to DC Test Score Scandal

Michelle Rhee has doubled back on her earlier smug dismissal of a very damaging story in USA Today about cheating on standardized tests in the DC public schools. Now she says that her initial reaction was stupid, that cheating may have occurred on the tests and that her successor should order an investigation, which she has.

Rhee said she still believes that the vast majority of teachers and administrators would never falsify test results, but that there can be exceptions. She said we should improve test security procedures so such abuses could not recur. She said the D.C. schools should ensure that D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests, after being completed, are not left in principals’ offices where tampering is possible.

“You have got to have really strong test security protocols at the district level and at the state level,” she said. “The vast majority of people will not cheat, but there will be exceptions here and there.”

Actually, Campbell’s Law pretty clearly shows that as standardized tests become more crucial, the desire to cheat will become more and more tantalizing. And you don’t have to call an obsessive focus on test-taking to the exclusion of other subjects and areas of learning “cheating,” but if it’s not cheating on the tests themselves – and it’s not – it’s cheating the students the opportunity for a well-rounded education.

There can be value in standardized testing but not if it’s treated with a monomaniacal focus, and not if it measures multiple-choice bubble-filling rather than actual comprehension and learning. And if we have evangelists for not only testing, but the policies that come out of that testing, who are so willfully blind to the opportunities for cheating they create, it’s a bad situation.

(Washington Post writer Jay) Mathews praised Rhee’s reversal and commented that:

“I sensed from my talk with Rhee that one reason she misspoke on Monday was that she had not had time to read either the USA Today story or the investigators’ reports, or to probe the weaknesses of test security protocols in Washington and other districts.”

If true, this would be astounding. There have been major testing scandals in many cities around the country dating back to the mid-90s. In the wake of these scandals it is difficult to believe that a school administrator who substantially increased the importance of standardized tests in the assessment of teachers and schools had not given careful consideration to test security protocols.

After all, Rhee ordered the investigation that ended up absolving the schools which improved their test scores, perhaps illegally, on her watch. If she did not probe the weaknesses in security protocols, or read the results of the report, just what was she doing as the DC schools chief other than posing for the cover of national magazines?

In a just world, Rhee’s credibility would be permanently damaged.

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David Dayen

David Dayen