Two city principals suspected of testing improprieties recommended for reinstatement

Citing "crude" and "incompetent" investigations into test-tampering allegations at a Baltimore elementary school, hearing officers have recommended the reinstatement of two administrators city schools CEO Andrés Alonso attempted to dismiss amid suspicions of cheating.

The findings, outlined in documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, clear Abbottston Elementary School Principal Angela Faltz and Assistant Principal Marcy Isaac, who had been held personally responsible for suspected cheating at the school on the Maryland School Assessments in the 2008-2009 school year.

The two hearing officers, attorneys hired by the school system to review facts and render independent opinions on personnel cases, concluded that Alonso had not met the burden of proof in dismissing the principals and that there was not enough reliable evidence to confirm that cheating at Abbottston had even taken place.

"It is unfortunate that Dr. Alonso rushed to judgment and humiliated dedicated employees before giving those employees an opportunity to confront the evidence and respond to the charges against them," said Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's principals union, which helped the administrators fight the allegations. "It is unfortunate that, even after learning that the analysis of his central witnesses was invalid, Dr. Alonso refused to correct the injustice."

Alonso had dismissed the administrators, who both have more than two decades of service in the city, after the Northeast Baltimore school's drastic score declines in 2010. The school's math scores dropped by about 30 percent; reading scores fell 37 percent. The previous year, the school had achieved 100 percent proficiency.

Alonso said last year that an investigation — primarily an analysis of erasures on the tests that was conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education — confirmed that cheating had taken place at the school.

"We do not comment on pending personnel actions," Alonso said in a statement Thursday. "We are committed to thorough and rigorous investigations of testing irregularities, and to maintaining the highest standards of integrity around testing in our schools, no matter how much and how long it takes us to establish those standards. Period. Our students, our principals and our teachers deserve no less."

If upheld by the city school board, the reinstatements could undermine a key part of Alonso's approach to accountability in the system. He has warned that principals at schools suspected of cheating are responsible for any improprieties taking place in their schools.

In 2010, Alonso revoked the professional license of one principal, Susan Burgess, who was held responsible for confirmed cheating at George Washington Elementary under her tenure. In an interview with The Sun at the time, Burgess denied any wrongdoing but did not fight the revocation. A state investigation found thousands of erasure marks in test booklets.

The city school board will hear oral arguments about Faltz and Isaac from the union's attorneys in June and then decide whether to reject or accept the hearing officers' opinions.

Currently, the city school system is investigating 16 more cases of suspected testing improprieties.

City school board President Neil Duke declined to comment because it is a personnel decision.

After the school system determined last year that cheating had taken place at Abbottston, Alonso lodged charges, under state education law, against the principals of willful neglect of duties, insubordination and misconduct, documents show.

According to the statement of charges, the system alleged that Faltz, in her capacity as principal, failed to ensure that the tests were administered properly and that security regulations were followed, and that she allowed inaccurate test scores to be reported to the state.

The same charges were lodged against Isaac, in her capacity as the testing administrator.

The system primarily relied on evidence from pre-tests, called "benchmarks," an analysis of students' performance over years and against the rest of the district, and erasure analysis to prove that the gains and drops were improbable without testing improprieties.

"This case centers on two words, accountability and integrity," the school system wrote in its closing arguments for the hearing, asserting that the tests were compromised.

The system concluded that both administrators "should be held accountable for [their] actions which were either deliberate or so woefully inept that they were reckless."

For nearly one year, the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association union has fought the charges. Attorneys who represented the principals union declined to comment on the case. Through attorneys, the principals also declined to comment.

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.

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