Amid a torrent of criticism and doubts about Baltimore's school-privatization venture, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey defended yesterday the work of Education Alternatives Inc. and minimized the importance of standardized test scores alone as a barometer of pupil progress.
A day after some City Council members and other detractors called for a halt to the experiment, Dr. Amprey delivered his strongest attack yet against critics.
At a late-afternoon news conference, he repeatedly asserted that the criticism of EAI has nothing to do with whether the "Tesseract" program is good for children but instead stems from gripes by teachers unions or lawmakers seeking political gain.
Support for Tesseract eroded considerably this week after The Sun's analysis of preliminary district test results released in June revealed that the school system had overstated standardized test score gains at the eight EAI-managed elementary schools.
In fact, revised results show that overall average test scores have declined for the eight EAI schools while rising districtwide during the experiment's first two years.
"There is nothing about what we're doing that is injurious to young people," said Dr. Amprey, now in his fourth year at the helm. "All of the arguments against it are special interests centered around adult kinds of concerns."
He warned that "special interests and politics" could sink a reform that he believes places Baltimore at the forefront of what he called a promising, though fledgling, movement toward "partnerships" with private operators.
Alluding to previous, short-lived school reforms, he said: "I think that if we're not careful, history will repeat itself with regard to us starting innovative programs in Baltimore and then stalling or choking, if you will, only to watch these innovations and reforms take place in places around the country and then us playing catch-up."
Critics, Dr. Amprey said, have placed far too much emphasis on overall average test scores for schools.
He also noted that while the overall average scores for EAI schools on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills have declined over the past two years, some of those schools showed gains between spring 1992 and last spring.
"Certainly, I would be concerned anytime test scores show us a decline, because what you want for young people is forward progress," Dr. Amprey said.
"But anytime we look at test scores, we must always look at them in light of something. . . . It means nothing just as scores."
He faulted The Sun and EAI critics for focusing on scores at the EAI schools because, he said, the school system's news conference Monday was called to announce gains in districtwide test scores.
'Competition' is seen
While downplaying the EAI schools' overall declines, both Dr. Amprey and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke noted the increases districtwide. They attributed those increases, in part, to "competition" from the privately managed schools.
Dr. Amprey has strongly denied critics' suggestion that the district rushed to release the overstated results in June to boost EAI's chances of winning a contract in Hartford, Conn.
That city had been negotiating with EAI in June, and its school board voted this month to give the for-profit Minnesota company control of the entire 32-school district and its $200 million annual budget.
But on Monday he acknowledged the intense focus on Baltimore's test results, saying, "The whole issue around EAI and that Hartford thing up there centered around our test scores."
Yesterday, the embattled schools chief called the discrepancies between June and this week's results an honest clerical mistake and said the district is focusing on "our efforts to bring about immediate change in how we collect and report data."
Dr. Amprey said the five-year Tesseract contract, worth more than $140 million, has yielded "myriad positive results," including cleaner schools, improved morale and attendance, and lessons in how to spend money more efficiently.
He cited as one example of the effort a restructuring study by an EAI partner, KPMG Peat Marwick, as "a lesson learned directly from watching them work with Tesseract schools."
The accounting giant also is serving temporarily as the school system's finance office.
Dr. Amprey reacted angrily to the often-repeated complaint that his administration has failed in the crucial oversight role and become an EAI advocate.
"I have been criticized for being too close to EAI, but I want you to hear this real clearly: I did not enter into a partnership to back away from it," he said.
"My approach with EAI will be the same cheerleading approach -- that was the word used -- with any innovative project" undertaken by the school system.
Dr. Amprey also pointed out that an independent evaluator, the Center for Educational Research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is beginning its review of Tesseract.
EAI also is contracting out for a much more detailed analysis of test scores expected to be completed in a few weeks.
Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the 8,500-member Baltimore Teachers Union, pointed out that EAI had promised immediate and dramatic results.
Test scores important
"Basically there aren't too many measurable ways to ascertain immediate and dramatic results without looking at test scores," she said.
"They also promised the test scores would go up, and they're not. We will agree with the superintendent that test scores do not tell the whole story. But the school system has been so reluctant to evaluate EAI any other way, you have to look at the test scores."
Ms. Prudente agreed with Mr. Schmoke, who called for continuing the Tesseract experiment until an independent evaluation is completed next spring.
The mayor said earlier this week that he would end the contract if the evaluation fails to find significant improvement in student performance.
Second District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who has two children in public schools, agreed that too many people are pointing fingers, but said the bottom line is that EAI gets more money per student and therefore is shortchanging the rest of the city's public schools.
This is a very expensive experiment, and they're going ahead and expanding it without reason or justification. I think it's wrong because they are cheating the other students."