A New York-based global management consulting firm once hired by the Fenty Administration to examine the tangled finances of the District school system is OSSE’s choice to investigate possible cheating on the 2011 DC CAS.

Officials announced Thursday that Alvarez and Marsal was the successful bidder for a $236,000 contract to examine test results in 35 public and public charter classrooms flagged for suspected cheating. In a separate announcement, DCPS said it would ask the firm to investigate an additional 36 classrooms it has identified as suspect through its own methodology. That brings the total to 71 classrooms across 30 DCPS schools and an unspecified number of public charter schools.

The agreement said the firm “shall provide full-scale consultation, auditing and investigation services.” Under the terms of the contract, the inquiry is expected to move quickly: it calls for OSSE to receive a final report by March 28.

Neither OSSE nor DCPS identified the schools involved in the probe. In a message Thursday, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson told school staff to prepare to answer questions.

“Note that in order to be as comprehensive as possible, A&M [Alvarez and Marsal] will likely speak with a large number of people in any given school; do not jump to conclusions if you, a colleague, or one of your students is interviewed, and thank you — in advance — for your patience with the process,” she said.

This probe is separate from one reportedly being conducted by the inspectors general of D.C. and the Department of Education, covering the period from 2008 to 2010. Henderson asked for the intervention after USA Today published an extensive investigation into high rates of answer sheet erasures at more than 100 D.C. schools.

OSSE’s decision to seek outside help with test security issues is a response to questions about the scope and rigor of previous investigations. DCPS retained Caveon to conduct inquiries into classrooms with high rates of wrong-to-right answer sheet erasures on the 2009 and 2010 Comprehensive Assessment System. Based on its work, D.C. State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley invalidated 2010 test scores last May in three classrooms (at Noyes, C.W. Harris and Leckie elementary schools). Two DCPS teachers were dismissed. But Caveon founder John Fremer said that DCPS never asked the company to use all the forensic tools at its disposal, some of which seem to be covered by OSSE’s expanded criteria.

OSSE announced last month that it had winnowed the number of classrooms under scrutiny from 128 to 35, based on a set of criteria expanded beyond erasures to determine whether test results should be fully investigated. They include unusual test score gains by individual students from 2010 to 2011; wide variances or unusual patterns of scores within a classroom, and prior year’s test results that showed inordinate wrong-to-right erasures in that teacher’s classroom. DCPS has instituted similar metrics, including CAS growth percentile, the percentage of students improving one or more performance levels from 2010 to 2011.

It is not known how much experience Alvarez and Marsal has in test security. Its Web site says it offers “turnaround and restructuring advisory, crisis and interim management, performance improvement, business consulting, global forensic and dispute services and tax advisory.” It is best known in the education world for working with school systems suffering serious financial issues. In 2007, it conducted an audit for then-chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that found a $155 million deficit amid "numerous deep-rooted structural issues and a system of insufficient checks, balances and controls.”
A firm executive, William Roberti, the former CEO of Brooks Brothers, spent 13 months in 2003-04 as superintendent of St. Louis public schools, closing 21 schools and cutting tens of millions from the budget. Alvarez left declaring the system was poised for recovery, but it was ultimately taken over by the state of Missouri.

"They took a broad-brush approach, and the cure was worse than the disease," Peter L. Downs, then-president of the elected St. Louis Board of Education, told my colleague Davis Nakamura in 2007. Roberti currently serves as a consultant to Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager of the Detroit school system.