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A long-awaited Frontline special on Michelle Rhee‘s tenure as schools chancellor finally aired last night. As the Post reported before the show aired, former Noyes Education Campus Principal Adell Cothorne alleged on the program that she witnessed possible answer tampering at the school but was never interviewed by the D.C. inspector general, who was tasked with investigating whether the District’s public school test scores were legitimate.
“My speculation: They didn’t want to hear what I had to say,” Cothorne told Frontline.
But a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general’s office, which conducted a joint investigation with the D.C. inspector general, says both her office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office interviewed Cothorne about her allegations. The interview was prompted by a whistleblower complaint (posted below) Cothorne filed in May 2011, alleging that cheating at Noyes affected how federal funds were distributed, says Marta Erceg, counsel to the DOE’s inspector general’s office. In a statement, the DOE ‘s inspector general says “our investigation was unable to substantiate the allegations that false claims were made to [education department] for payment of funds, and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to intervene.”
Neither Cothorne or her attorney have immediately returned calls seeking comment.
The news that Cothorne was interviewed by investigators who collaborated with the D.C. inspector general’s office takes the wind out of the sails out of the Frontline piece (and makes the D.C. IG look slightly better.) Cothorne may very well be telling the truth that she wasn’t contacted by the D.C. IG, but it’s certainly not the whole truth, if she talked with federal investigators who were working with the IG.
In a statement yesterday, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson cast Cothorne as a liar motivated by the chance of receiving whistleblower funds. “The fact that she has decided to attempt to personally profit financially through fictitious claims, rather than improve educational opportunities for our students, is extremely disappointing,” Henderson wrote.
Left out of Henderson’s statement (or in a subsequent email exchange with LL) was any explanation as to why Noyes’ test scores plummeted when Cothorne took over.
A quick review of Noyes’ test score roller coaster: Rhee comes to power in 2007 and places great emphasis 0n the city’s standardized test scores. Principals at schools that don’t see an increase in test scores risk losing their jobs. Proficiency scores at Noyes soar, some more than 20 percent a year. Its then principal, Wayne Ryan, literally becomes a poster boy for Rhee’s brand of reforms. The school’s teachers and Ryan win accolades and cash bonuses.
But accompanying those test scores comes an astoundingly high rate of “erasures” indicating that answers had been changed. “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance,” USA Today reports about the erasure rate of one Noyes classroom. A Noyes teacher tells the IG he was instructed by school staff to give students correct answers on standardized tests, while 15 other teachers tell the IG that’s false. That one teacher who admitted to cheating is fired.
After Cothorne takes over for Ryan during the 2010-2011 school year, she says she sees three staffers changing answers on a mid-year practice standardized test. Cothorne says she tightens test security for the real test and proficiency rates on those tests fall more than 25 percent.
Fictitious claims? Maybe, but if they are, then what else explains what happened with Noyes’ test scores?
Here’s Cothorne’s complaint:
Photo by Darrow Montgomery