As the Baltimore school system attempts to rebound from a series of cheating scandals and its first significant test score decline in years, leaders are considering a worrisome possibility: They might have hit a wall in educating children.
Schools CEO Andrés Alonso, who signed a contract last week to stay on in the city for the next four years, has vowed to launch a school-by-school analysis of those that experienced declines on this year's Maryland School Assessments.
"If the schools are failing, it's because they don't know how to do it any better," Alonso said. "And that's where we come in … to help them do it better. That is the work."
Alonso pointed to a number of challenges still facing the school system, most of which affect the classroom: poor instruction, teaching to the test and lack of rigor in evaluating teachers.
On the 2011 assessments, the city's scores fell in reading and math, 3 percentage points and 5 percentage points respectively — a dip that education experts say is normal for large, urban school systems that have experienced years of rising scores.
Experts say Baltimore, with its first setback in years, was simply due for a reality check.
"It's a bucket of cold water in the face of the school district and the superintendent," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a national nonpartisan education group. "But the bucket of cold water is an opportunity to stop and think about what's going right, and what's going wrong."
Alonso has acknowledged that the city experienced a "pause" this year in drastic reforms that have fueled the movement it has seen since he arrived in 2007. For example, he closed 26 failing schools in his first three years, but none in his fourth.
Other initiatives — such as getting union contracts done for city educators — may have diverted attention from what was happening in the classroom.
"We took a rest this year because there were so many other things happening," he said. "We clearly have to begin to push in the same direction again."
While that could mean another rush of unsettling and controversial overhauls in schools, it's a welcome move among education advocates in the city.
"I appreciate the fact that Dr. Alonso has acknowledged that there are other underlying problems and [is] willing to address those," said Bebe Verdery, director of the Americian Civil Liberties Union of Maryland's Education Reform Project. "In a way, the cheating would have been the easy way out."
Verdery, who has advocated for the school system for decades, said that under Alonso's tenure, the system has undergone a transformation unlike any since 1997.
"But maybe this is a bit of a wake-up call to say that we've pushed the envelope and been innovative, but now we've got to make sure that every classroom has a great teacher with the right support," Verdery said. "They really need to up their game, but I think they know that. So I'm encouraged."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she was disappointed that the test scores fell this year. But, she said, "I know our teachers are working very hard to make sure our students are prepared not just for MSA testing, but also to move them forward in their education."
The declines come after Alonso has acknowledged widespread cheating at several schools. State officials found test-booklet tampering took place at George Washington Elementary on the 2008 assessments; Abbottston Elementary in 2009; and Fort Worthington Elementary in 2009 and 2010.
A dozen schools, eight from this past school year, are under investigation to determine whether their scores were legitimate. But at least five have been cleared by other factors, such as a low number of test takers and high turnover of staff.
"We will look very hard at the schools because assumptions can be unbelievably wrong," Alonso said. "And we will come through this stronger, because we're doing the right thing."
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."
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."
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."