National testing-integrity experts said it's almost impossible that Baltimore sustained consecutive years of gains by cheating. And the city's efforts this year to ensure test security — spending nearly $400,000 to hire independent monitors for every school — is unlike any other effort in the country, they said.

"There's always the possibility that cheating has gone on, but it's unrealistic to think that achievement is a straight line going up," said Steve Ferrara, a national testing expert and researcher who has studied high-profile cheating cases around the country.

"But to think that any school system could sustain gains systemwide for four years — to suggest that many students and teachers had been cheating — the amount of collusion that's required seems unlikely."

Alonso trademarks

The city's schools are also still settling into Alonso's radical introduction of choice, autonomy and competition. Alonso has allowed middle and high school students to choose their schools, and he has given principals autonomy over hiring and budgets as a way to implement their educational philosophies.

Alonso's policy, while celebrated, has also resulted in high turnover among students and teachers. For example, about 30 percent of the students in the city who took the MSA this year were new test-takers at their schools. At one school, a principal left and took nearly all his staff with him.

A preliminary look at some schools, officials said, showed that the turnover was reflected in the scores.

"If these are trends that are here to stay, we need to make sure that the instruction is consistent enough," said Melanie Hood-Wilson, who oversees the teaching and learning arm of the city's Parent Community Advisory Board.

The parent of charter school students and founder of a charter school, Hood-Wilson supports autonomy, but said that "every student at every school has a set of state standards that they must meet, and it is definitely incumbent upon the system that the skills are being taught systemwide."

Additionally, the schools chief has continued to open schools, stretching the student population. About 40 schools had fewer than 150 test takers this year. A small number of students could change the entire schools' MSA trajectory, as was the case in some schools with double-digit declines.

Alonso has had the highest turnover among principals in recent history: At least 70 percent of the principals in the city are new. They are leading critical reforms they won't receive proper support for until next year, when 16 new administrators will be hired to coach them.

While Alonso said the 2011 scores spur a new wave of urgency, some say that the next four years of his tenure might benefit.

"He's been a ball of energy in the last four years, and he might want to go steadier this time around," Jennings said, suggesting Alonso go on a "listening tour," meeting privately with educators to see what is and isn't working.

"There's also probably an element of him being tired and school administrators being tired — of constant pressure, constant change and constant turmoil."

Accountability

Alonso has made accountability for student achievement a priority, and in a year that the system experienced such drastic declines, tension is brewing over who will be held responsible.

"I am very concerned in the drop in test scores, but I am more concerned about where the blame will be placed," said Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's administrators union. "Dr. Alonso has a saying, 'The buck stops with the principal of the school.' Well, I emphatically disagree with this logic."

Alonso has pulled the professional licenses of principals whose schools' test scores reflect cheating, and removed principals if they fail to raise student achievement.

Gittings said that Alonso; the school board, which has given him free rein to run the district; and the supervisors who oversee school leaders should bear some responsibility for the test scores.

"Unfortunately, someone will suffer the consequences," Gittings said. "One thing for sure, we know who will not suffer any consequences — the supervisors, the CEO and the board of school commissioners."

But the school system is about to enter a new era of accountability, piloting a teacher evaluation system that will tie 50 percent of a teacher's job rating to student performance. For city teachers, more will be at stake because they passed a union contract last fall tying their pay to their evaluations.

"This isn't the end," Jennings said. "There's even more difficulty ahead."

But now that the city schools have experienced both celebration and disappointment, there's a simple lesson to be learned, according to Jennings: "You can't take one year and declare victory or declare defeat."

erica.green@baltsun.com