What would happen if the D.C. school system were to root out the educators who appear to have tampered with thousands of test answer sheets? No D.C. principal has been fired or 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 veteran educators and parents in D.C. and Baltimore who think cheating should be taken seriously.
Andres Alonso, chief executive 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. Two dismissed principals have retired without challenging Alonso’s action.
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 both principals who retired without challenging their dismissals did nothing wrong. They told him they 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.
Examiners who are part of the appeals process 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 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 following year, when Abbottston administrators lost 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 administrators are appealing to the state school board.
Research so far provides no evidence of anything that could have produced such massive erasures except test tampering. Attorneys for the Abbottston administrators said there is an explanation: Teachers instructed students to indicate wrong answers with an X or a line, then erase those marks after filling in the correct bubble. But there is, so far, no evidence that the erasures on the exams looked like that.
Districts such as 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 taken a nosedive.
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