Baltimore schools cheating: Evidence of integrity, not widespread problems

The only thing worse for Baltimore City's schools than cheating on standardized tests would be to ignore the possibility that it could happen, to hide evidence of cheating or to attempt to handle the consequences of it quietly. In that light, we should not take the announcement by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso that investigators have found widespread cheating at two more Baltimore schools, on top of another elementary school fingered last year, as a reason to cynically dismiss the widespread gains city students have made on standardized tests in recent years. Rather, we should see it as evidence that Mr. Alonso, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and others are taking test integrity seriously and that they are looking for and finding instances when it is violated.

The cheating investigators found at Abbottson Elementary in 2009 and Fort Worthington Elementary in 2009 and 2010 followed patterns similar to the tampering that took place at George Washington Elementary. In all cases, staff members appear to have manipulated test booklets after the fact to inflate students' scores. At Fort Worthington, attendance records were also changed after the fact to help meet the progress requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. Alonso told The Sun's Erica L. Green in an interview that two more schools that he referred to the state are still under investigation.

In a world where teachers and principals are under intense pressure to show academic gains, the temptation to cheat is obvious. In Baltimore, that temptation is about to get bigger, as the state rolls out a new system in which teachers' evaluations are based in large part on gains in student performance, and as a new city teachers contract begins to base educators' salaries on their classroom effectiveness. No one has pushed the city's educators harder in this regard than Mr. Alonso, and that makes the extremely public way he has addressed these cases of cheating all the more important.

Before the Maryland School Assessment tests were given this year, Mr. Alonso recorded an eight-minute video underscoring the importance of the tests and, above all, the importance of maintaining their integrity. He said the tests are important documentation of the real gains students have made, but they are also crucial for showing what remains to be done, not just on the school level but also in terms of the progress of individual pupils. Cheating, he said, "directly hurts kids." And, he added, those who engage in it won't get off lightly.

"If there is anybody who is thinking about any kind of irregularities, I need you to understand that your entire professional livelihood is on the line," he said, looking directly into the camera. "We are not talking about termination. We are not talking about being transferred. We are talking about losing your professional license." On this point, no one could doubt his sincerity; a year before, he had successfully pushed for the state to revoke the license of George Washington Elementary's principal at the time of the cheating, despite its status a National Blue Ribbon School that had been visited byLaura Bush.

In addition to the video, Mr. Alonso invested heavily this year in additional testing security measures, sending an additional 157 monitors into the schools. Time will tell whether that was sufficient. But teachers or principals who are tempted to cheat will soon have another reason to worry. As part of the state's Race to the Top reforms, Maryland is finally adopting a long-awaited longitudinal data system that will allow it to more easily track the year-to-year performance of individual students — and to aggregate those data by the schools and teachers those students had. If a classroom or grade of students makes great gains one year and drops off the next, it will be an obvious warning sign, and one that doesn't require anyone to tip off investigators.

The safeguards built into the system and the very public way Mr. Alonso has handled the matter should be enough to convince all involved that the talk about test integrity doesn't come with a wink and a nod. The fact that the system has investigated highly lauded schools — places that have been visited by the first lady and secretary of education — is crucial to maintaining the public's trust, to dissuading any teachers or principals who might be tempted to cheat, and, most importantly, to reassuring students that the standardized tests aren't a joke. There is no way we can prove that every single test score in the city is legitimate, but there is also no reason to believe that school officials are covering up broader problems. We should get suspicious when public officials assure us that nothing is or ever could be wrong, not when they publicly acknowledge failures.

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