What would happen if the D.C. school system rooted out the educators who appear to have tampered with thousands of test answer sheets? No D.C. principal has been fired or even disciplined for changing wrong answers to right ones, despite compelling evidence that some of them or their staffs did so. What if D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson shed her see-no-evil attitude and got tough?
Take a short drive up Interstate 95 to Baltimore. There is the answer, messy and incomplete but heartening to many educators and parents in D.C. and Baltimore who think cheating should be taken seriously.
Andres Alonso, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore City schools, has recommended dismissal of five administrators primarily on the strength of wrong-to-right erasure data and sudden drops in test scores after the administrators were denied access to the answer sheets. Such firings have few legal precedents. Some dismissals may not hold up during protracted hearings and appeals. The city school board has vetoed the dismissal of an assistant principal, but one dismissed principal has retired and another has resigned.
Alonso told me if a school is hit by a rash of wrong-to-right erasures with no innocent explanation, and the resulting high scores plummet when security is tightened, he considers these factors in assessing the school’s leaders. He said he will continue to recommend discipline against such administrators “as any other action is a disservice to our children.”
Jimmy Gittings, president of the Baltimore union that represents school administrators, said the principal at George Washington Elementary School who retired without challenging her dismissal did nothing wrong. She told him she did not want to risk the union’s finances with expensive appeals. But when the dismissed principal and test coordinator at Abbottston Elementary School said they wanted to fight back, Gittings said, the union board agreed to do it. The legal bill so far is $500,000, he said.
Personnel appeal examiners recommended that the city school board overturn Alonso’s actions at Abbottston. The board decided instead to uphold the firing of the test coordinator but let the principal return to work with the loss of two years’ pay and no guarantee she would run a school again. The examiners agreed with the Abbottston administrators that the state analysis of the school’s erasure data—done by an official in her living room---was flawed. But the city school board said the testimony still showed that the average number of wrong-to-right erasures among the answer sheets examined had ranged from 8 to 18, far above the norm.
Abbottston’s 100 percent proficiency rate the year those erasures occurred was not believable, the board said. The school’s proficiency rate dropped nearly 40 percentage points the next year when Alonso had extra security deny Abbottston administrators access to completed answer sheets. “The totality of the evidence convinces us that the only plausible explanation is that cheating occurred,” the board said. The Abbottston administrators are appealing to the state school board.
Nancy Grasmick supported the dismissals when she was Maryland state superintendent of schools and still does since her retirement last year. Asked if such firings are proper without confessions, she said in this country that some people are convicted of murder without even a body.
Research so far provides no evidence of anything that could have produced such massive erasures except test tampering. The attorneys for the Abbottston administrators offered this explanation: Teachers instructed students to indicate wrong answers with an X or a line, then erase those marks after filling in the right bubble. But the state’s test analyst testified she saw few such marks and did not count them as erasures.
Baltimore is having a test security company look at its last two years of answer sheets. Maryland is scanning erasures in all schools for the first time this year.
Districts like Baltimore and D.C. take pride in their test score gains. Baltimore wants to make sure they are real, even if that means a legal fight. The District’s school leaders appear to lack the stomach for that, even at schools like those in Baltimore where once impressive test scores have nosedived.