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Kaya Henderson Addresses Cheating In D.C. Public Schools

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DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says she had no prior knowledge of a confidential memo that surfaced in 2009, highlighting the cheating that took place in D.C. public schools.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says she had no prior knowledge of a confidential memo that surfaced in 2009, highlighting the cheating that took place in D.C. public schools.

The District's Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) found last year that cheating occurred in 11 schools. This comes just as a confidential memo has surfaced about possible cheating in D.C. public schools a few years ago.

The document, first obtained by a PBS NewsHour correspondent, was written in 2009 by an outside data analyst who said as many as 200 teachers across 70 schools may have erased wrong answers and filled in correct ones. Test scores are used to make several decisions in DCPS from how much money a teacher and principal can make to whether they get to keep their jobs.

WAMU 88.5's education reporter Kavitha Cardoza spoke with DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson about the cheating and confidential memo that surfaced.

You were Michelle Rhee's right-hand person at the time. Did you see or hear of the memo?

"I did not. While I was Michelle's right-hand, my responsibilities were for human capital. This is not a memo or document I would have ever seen, because I wouldn't be involved in testing integrity at that level. I actually saw the document or memo for the first time in January of this year."

Part of the issue is that there is this perception that you're reluctant to aggressively investigate widespread cheating. When you said OSSE directed people... that means nothing to people.

"First of all, let me say, I personally don't tolerate cheating, and I've used every tool in my toolkit available to investigate this. I've called for the inspector general to investigate. We have employed outside investigators, and in fact, I spoke to the U.S. Department of Education and asked for a standard around the flagging methodology and around the investigations. We had six different investigations, and not one has been able to confirm widespread cheating. I've been cooperative in the investigation. We have been forthcoming in all of the information that we have. Tell me what else you would like me to do."

When you said that you have done everything that you could, in fact, the firm you hired specifically had said that you had not asked them to use every forensic tool... and so I think people would ask, did you do everything you could?

"It was about one firm at that time who was doing test integrity investigations, and we hired that firm. We hired the best in the country. And in fact, the firm looked at our flagging methodology — or OSSE's flagging method at the time — and they told us what they prescribed that they needed to figure out whether or not cheating happened. And they also, like any vendor will, said we also have these additional services, but they didn't give us any indication that we needed any additional services. When in fact, when they went to work in Atlanta and had to look at the Atlanta information, they said, 'You actually need our greater suite of services.' And Atlanta chose not to pursue that."

Would you support a full-scale investigation with agents with full subpoena power going through the answer sheets to find out what really happened?

"I would support anything that would clear my teachers and my students from the cloud of doubt hanging over their head. Here's what I would also support: if we're going to criminalize teachers in D.C., then we're going to criminalize teachers in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and everywhere else. If that then is the standard, then make it the standard across the board. But I don't want DCPS teachers to be treated in a way that criminalizes them when six different investigations said there is no widespread cheating."

One of the things you had said in an interview is that amidst all the cheating allegations, is this underlying assumption that minority children can't achieve.

"Actually, Michelle Rhee said that. That was her response to the initial allegation. And I do believe there are a lot of people who believe that the only way urban school districts can be successful is by cheating. But if you look at our test scores, we must be pretty bad cheaters if we were cheating, because we haven't seen huge rises in test scores. And then the thing that I think I rely on is that when you look at the NAEP results — the gold standard of testing and is the uncheatable test — DCPS has seen progress or growth on the NAEP in the last few years."

Atlanta has shown progress on the NAEP as well, and they have widespread cheating.

"Yes, but they also saw huge increases in their test scores. And so I think the cheating is reflective of what is happening on their tests. I think there was also then progress for some of those young people as reflected in the NAEP. What I want most is for our young people to get the education that they need and deserve."

Listen to the conversation here.

Consultant's memo on D.C. Public Schools
This document was first obtained by John Merrow, correspondent for PBS NewsHour and president of Learning Matters.

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