The Baltimore school system has hired a leading data forensics company to review thousands of state assessment results dating to 2009 — a third-party analysis that school officials say is needed to inject fairness into investigations of alleged cheating.
But the move has come under fire from the president of the principals union, who says the $275,000 contract with Caveon Test Security is a waste of money for the financially strapped school district and a misguided effort by schools CEO Andrés Alonso to confirm his long-held suspicions about cheating at some schools.
"The children of Baltimore City deserve a CEO who is focused on education, not one who is determined to win at all costs because he cannot bear to admit that he was wrong," Jimmy Gittings, the union president, said in a statement.
The city school board approved last week a contract with Caveon, a company whose analysts and experts have been tapped to help crack cheating cases in Washington and Atlanta public schools. The company will review 6,000 test booklets from the 2009 Maryland School Assessments and 2,000 test booklets from 2010.
Alonso's administration launched investigations into alleged cheating at more than a dozen city schools that saw test scores plunge in the past three years, and school officials contend the Caveon review will help to expedite those investigations. Already Alonso has dismissed several principals at schools suspected of cheating.
But the school system's findings of cheating at one school and the decision to fire its principal and assistant principal have been questioned by independent hearing officers, who found a lack of evidence.
Those officers recommended that Angela Faltz, the principal of Abbottston Elementary, be reinstated, citing what they characterized as a flawed investigation by the school system.
The school board recently reinstated Faltz, though not until 2013 and without back pay. Gittings said Alonso "bullied" the school board to reject the recommendations by hearing officers that Faltz be reinstated immediately.
He said the board should have "the backbone to stand up to Dr. Alonso when he is wrong" and not serve "as a rubber-stamp for his petty battles and misguided witch hunts."
Alonso did not say whether the results of the Abbottston case prompted the Caveon contract.
But in a statement he said, "From the moment we first identified cheating in one of our schools, we have not let up in our urgency to address and bring closure to this issue. Working with Caveon is simply one more reflection of that urgency."
"Nothing matters like the integrity of our outcomes, and no one can question those outcomes now," Alonso said. "That is worth every price."
City school officials would not disclose which schools, or how many, would have their booklets analyzed but said the review would include pending and ongoing investigations.
Abbottston, officials said, is still considered an "ongoing case."
Alonso has said that 16 schools, which he has not identified, are currently under investigation for suspected testing improprieties. Officials said that under the Caveon contract, about 500 booklets at various schools would be reviewed to draw conclusions about ongoing and pending cases.
System officials said that many of the investigations have been awaiting erasure analysis that experts would be more capable of handling.
"It would be more beneficial and fair ... to have national expertise," the system's chief legal officer, Tammy Turner, told board members in presenting the contract.
In the past, the Maryland State Department of Education has handled investigations into test tampering, conducting manual erasure analysis. Such reviews look at the number of erasure marks in a student's test booklet and the consistency of switching from wrong to right answers.
Beginning last spring, the department began electronic scanning of test booklets, according to department spokesman Bill Reinhard. He said the state moved to electronic scanning because it allows for better analysis of pencil marks, is more cost effective and better equips the state to handle cheating investigations that can result in legal action.
"Although these are rare, especially considering the hundreds of thousands of exams, there are enough of them to warrant concern," Reinhard said. "We believe the electronic analysis will provide us information in a more timely fashion."
City school officials said that the Caveon contract would "be in line with how the state was now conducting its analysis, and fair to schools to get to closure by expediting the cases." They said the city system has to bear the cost for doing analyses for previous years.
They later acknowledged that Caveon will not conduct electronic scans, but manual ones.
Molly Rath, communications director for the school system, said the analysis — conducted by 11 Caveon staff members at $300 an hour — will include booklet tabulation, data comparison, and detailed analysis and reports.
In 2010, Abbottston experienced plummeting test scores, by as much as 50 percent in some grades. School officials argued that the declines at Abbottston were drastic enough to suggest the school had cheated.
The union fought the removal of Faltz as well as that of Abbottston's assistant principal and testing coordinator, Marcy Isaac, for nearly a year in legal proceedings heard by two independent hearing officers, attorneys hired by the school system to hear cases and render opinions.
Both officers said that the district failed to meet its burden of proof that cheating had ever taken place at Abbottston, after several witnesses — including the school system's chief investigators — admitted they could not conclude the school had cheated.
The hearing officers recommended both be reinstated with back pay and criticized the system's investigation, calling the manual erasure analysis on which it was built "crude" and "incompetent."
After the hearing officers issued their recommendations, union and system officials presented oral arguments before the city school board.
The arguments, held June 26, were closed to the public. But in transcripts obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the school system attorneys pointed to a recent case in which the Court of Special Appeals upheld a second-degree murder conviction based on circumstantial evidence. But that evidence included a body, cell phone records and an eyewitness to suspicious behavior, one board member noted.
On Aug. 27, the city school board voted to reinstate Faltz in 2013 and to uphold the dismissal of Isaac for breaking test security protocols. The union protested both decisions.
"Now the city school system is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional resources in a vain attempt to bolster their worthless case, while [the two administrators] continue to languish without pay," Gittings said in the statement.
Since 2011, the district has spent nearly $700,000 to deploy independent test monitors to quell doubts that the system's progress was real after Alonso announced three cheating scandals in two years.
School board president Neil Duke said the contract is further investment in the district's safeguards against cheating.
"The district has taken extraordinary steps in recent years to guard against testing improprieties," Duke said in a statement. "In a sense, this contract is designed to aid the district's validation of our academic progress."
But at least one school board member thought it was a poor way to use funds that could be going to student services.
"It's really sad that we have to spend hard-earned, taxpayer money on things like this instead of enrichment," school board Commissioner David Stone said after the board approved the contract.
City school officials said that an actual contract does not exist and that the board only approved the price and purpose. Details will be finalized later.
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