According to statements of facts and conclusions made by the hearing officers, over the course of the seven-month personnel hearings, several details emerged that point to the system's ignoring critical information that could have contributed to the score declines and indicated that there was no proof of tampering.

According to hearing documents, the city schools' chief investigator testified that without an erasure analysis, there was little direct evidence of cheating at Abbottston and that 26 employees of the school who were interviewed denied witnessing any breach of protocol.

When the system's chief investigator was asked during testimony if he had any reason to doubt the interviewees, he responded "no." His conclusion that the school had cheated was based in large part on the erasure analysis that followed.

The same investigator also concluded that the only opportunity for erasures was when test booklets were stored in a locked room, waiting to be picked up. Faltz was one of three people with a key to the secured area, but her key was bent and she could not enter the room, the reports said.

The hearing officers criticized the erasure analysis conducted by a state education official, who also served as a chief expert witness on behalf of the system.

The official testified that she was the only person in the country to conduct manual analyses, while most others are done electronically by an outside company. She reviewed test booklets in her home, determined her own definition for an erasure mark and found a high level of marks, she said.

She then destroyed her notes, including her methodology — to the hearing officers' ire.

In the year before her investigation, the state official also emailed a colleague to ask whether the system's claims would back up her findings, which lawyers for the system argued indicated her intent to reach a conclusion before the investigation was completed.

One officer called the state's erasure analysis "riddled with false assumptions, mathematical errors, and flawed methodology … [and it] simply does not withstand any test of scientific validity."

The other officer wrote that her conclusions were based "upon conjecture and not facts, and her opinions on these subjects should be excluded as incompetent."

The state Department of Education declined to comment; attempts to reach the official who did the analysis were unsuccessful.

According to the hearing opinions, many testified that Abbottston was a tight-knit school with a rigorous test prep program leading up to the Maryland School Assessments that allowed the school to reach 100 percent proficiency in 2008-2009.

But the school experienced a series of setbacks in 2009-2010. Faltz testified that the year that the test scores dropped, "everything that could go wrong, did go wrong."

The school had lost experienced teachers, and two new teachers who struggled in teaching and classroom management were hired; there were two blizzards, closing schools for more than 10 days that winter — a crucial time for MSA review; Abbottston became a "choice" school that year, contributing to a turnover in the student body; the tested population was small, with 126 students in grades three to five; and five of six teachers were assigned new tested grades.

School officials testified that Abbottston also employed testing strategies that could have contributed to numerous erasure marks. For instance, students were allowed to pick more than one answer as part of a process of elimination and then erase their choices during the 2008-2009 school year, but not in 2009-2010.

Gittings pointed to one class that had stability at the school and scored 100 percent both years, despite testing monitors.

The factors cited by Faltz and others who testified in the case were the same ones that Alonso offered last year in pleading that the public not draw conclusions about a systemwide drop in scores after test monitors were deployed throughout the system.

"Dr. Alonso chose to disregard … the factors he knew could cause a drop in student test scores, in favor of an improbable theory of cheating," Gittings said.

erica.green@baltsun.com