At the ELA retake, Jennifer says, there were about ten students in the room: the four or five from her special-ed class, taught by a Chévere favorite named Jennifer Wilen, and four or five more from the mainstreamed population who qualified for extra test time. Wilen sat among her students and read each multiple-choice question aloud, Jennifer says. Then she’d “let us guess, and if we circled the wrong one … she would say, ‘No, that’s wrong—b is the answer.’ I’d erase it and circle the b.” The mainstreamed students raced ahead, shouting answers to one another. (On the day of her state math test, according to Jennifer, the procedure changed a bit. Since Wilen was “a little dumbish about math,” the student says, “she asked the kids who took regular classes for the answer, and they would just tell us, and we would just circle down the answer.”)
Toward the end of the ELA test, Jennifer says, Wilen told her students to cover their tracks by erasing some correct answers and entering wrong ones: “We just erased like two, and that’s it—two answers.”
As it turned out, two erasures might have been conservative. Of ten NEST eighth-graders with special needs, all scored at or above grade level on the ELA that year. Their mean scaled score outshone their general-education schoolmates; it also surpassed the average for any general-ed eighth-grade class at all but three schools in the city. In the math test that year, Jennifer’s test group scored even higher. And NEST’s seventh-graders with special needs did better yet; all seven tallied 4’s on the ELA. (Wilen denies feeding students answers. Asked to explain the unusual scores, she first suggested that perhaps the eighth-graders “did a really good job cheating” on their own, then reconsidered, saying she had “trained those poor little kids beautifully” with a relentless regimen of ELA practice tests.)
When these test results were relayed to Robert Tobias, longtime chief of assessment for the old Board of Ed and now a research director at NYU’s Steinhardt School, his response was unqualified: “Based on a career of 30 years of looking at these kinds of data, I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s one in a million.”
Overall, NEST had a banner year in 2005. With 99 percent of its students scoring at or above the standard in English and 97 percent in math, it outranked all but a handful of schools. Even today, Chévere trumpets her “stellar track record”: “All my students achieved perfect to near-perfect scores on all standardized tests at all grade levels. I’m extremely proud of that achievement.”
But Jennifer derived no pleasure from her pair of 4’s. “If I don’t do something by myself, I’m not going to know it,” she says. That fall, glowing transcript in hand, she was placed in general-ed classes at Health Professions High School and soon fell hopelessly behind. She’s since transferred to a school in New Jersey, but her academic future—and goal of college—remains in doubt.
From the outside looking in, Chévere’s hell-bent drive to be “near-perfect”—and the liberties allegedly taken in pursuit of that goal—seem puzzling. Most students got into the school by testing well in the first place, after all, and the small special-needs group would have limited statistical impact. Under these circumstances, why would any principal push the envelope? While Lana saw the high scores as a “bragging point,” Randy traces a deeper motive for Chévere, a woman who’d burned so many bridges. If NEST performed well enough, it would be “untouchable,” the teacher says. “Her end goal was, ‘I’m going to make this school the best and shut everyone up.’”
And so she did, for a time. The numbers for Jennifer and her classmates leap off a spreadsheet, yet the school was not flagged or brought to account for them. Under Bloomberg and Klein and the senior DoE leadership known as Tweed, gaudy test scores are like the home-run records of the steroid era: great for marketing and certainly preferable to scandal. If one of the top-performing schools in the city was corrupt, what might that imply about the system’s overall progress (however thin) on the standardized tests? If scores could be rigged at such a high-profile school, who else might be fiddling?
With the DoE about to gut the regions and their middle management in favor of “empowerment” and “school support organizations,” NEST serves as a cautionary tale about the peril of weak oversight. Throughout the system, principals will be gaining unprecedented autonomy. They will answer only to Tweed—and Tweed is pleased, first and last, by rising test scores. Last week’s tentative pact with the principals union, featuring bonuses of up to $25,000 for high performance, is a case in point. Simply put, less-scrupulous principals will have both motive and opportunity to fudge on the standardized tests.