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Pressure is on Alonso after Baltimore's MSA disappointment

Baltimore City schools' results on this year's Maryland School Assessment tests are a terrible disappointment. Although the overall declines in reading (3.3 percentage points) and math (4.9 percentage points) are not catastrophic, the results from individual schools paint a more troubling picture. Of the 50 schools that showed the largest combined drops on math and reading scores since 2010, 45 were in Baltimore, including 19 of the bottom 20 and all of the bottom 10. Coming on the heels of Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso's acknowledgment last week that two more schools have come under suspicion for cheating on the tests in previous years, and his much publicized effort to tighten test security this year, these results pose the obvious question of how much of Baltimore's celebrated improvement under his leadership was genuine and how much was the result of dishonesty.

Mr. Alonso, who is likely to sign a renewal of his contract sometime this week, is seeking to put something of a happy face on these results by placing them in the context of the system's overall gains since he arrived in Baltimore and comparing them to other large school districts that have experienced dips and plateaus in the course of gradual improvement. There is good reason for his effort at glass-half-full salesmanship. The district cannot improve if everyone involved — from the school board to the students — doesn't believe that it's possible. He has been able to achieve major reforms in a short time largely because the city believes in his success, and that matters, not because it burnishes his legacy but because Baltimore can never achieve a true rebirth if its school system remains so far behind the rest of the state.

Amid the positive spin, Mr. Alonso makes some valid points. The mere fact that a school shows a significant drop from 2010 to 2011 (there are six Baltimore City schools that dropped 20 points or more in both reading and math) is not de facto evidence that cheating had occurred in previous years. It certainly raises suspicion, but Mr. Alonso said his staff will be examining the data carefully for mitigating factors, such as unusually large staff or student turnover or, as in the case of one school, the addition of a new citywide special education program. Conversely, just because a school saw a less drastic decline doesn't mean it should be or will be exempt from scrutiny. Mr. Alonso also objected to the description of cheating that had been discovered previously as "widespread." That's fair enough; even in cases when an entire school's scores had been altered, it may have been the work of only one or two people.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to look at the year-to-year change in scores in dozens of Baltimore schools and not wonder how much the heightened test security had to do with the drops, and how much of the gains the system had logged up to this point had been honest. We will never know for sure. After all, if cheating played a part in the gains in recent years, there's no reason to believe the scores before Mr. Alonso got here — the ones on which his claims of success are based — were any more genuine.

What we can judge is how Mr. Alonso has reacted to evidence of cheating. In contrast to superintendents in other large urban districts whose scores have come under scrutiny, he has initiated investigations of suspect schools, he has pushed for the harshest possible disciplinary measures against those implicated in cheating scandals, and this year he initiated extensive new security measures at test time. That is not what he would do if he was more interested in the district looking good than being good. Paradoxically, this year's score declines may both expose prior dishonesty in the school system and confirm Mr. Alonso's integrity.

Looking forward, though, the question of why Baltimore's scores dropped this year is not the most important one. Whether it was because of prior cheating, other factors, or a combination of both, the crucial issue is what Mr. Alonso, the principals, teachers and students are going to do to make sure it is a statistical blip and not a trend. The drop is terrible because the city schools are so far behind the rest of Maryland as it is, and we need them to not just keep up with the modest gains students posted statewide but to far exceed them, year after year.

The story of Mr. Alonso's first years in office was straightforward: He closed failing schools and opened new ones, and he transferred authority, funding and responsibility from the system's headquarters on North Avenue to individual schools and principals. That effort culminated in a new teachers contract that will base pay on gains in student performance. This year's scores show that those steps by themselves do not make progress inevitable and that more will be needed to move the system to the next level, but Mr. Alonso has not been able to articulate as clearly what his next steps will be to improve the quality of instruction in the classroom, refine the curriculum and cope with the social problems that lead to student absenteeism and transiency.

If he wants to erase the blow this year's scores have dealt to the city's belief that its schools are improving, he doesn't have long to come up with an answer. In the next year he will be under pressure he hasn't seen since he first arrived in Baltimore, and the measure of his success will be simple: Can he maintain or increase the level of testing security in 2012 and still produce better scores? For the sake of the students and the city, the answer had better be yes.

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