Inquiry into tests launched

November 19, 1994|By Mike Bowler and Gary Gately | Mike Bowler and Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writers

City school officials yesterday launched an investigation into rock-bottom scores on a standardized test used to judge the effectiveness of Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI), the for-profit company managing nine Baltimore schools.

A panel of educators assigned by the Minneapolis-based firm to review testing in 1993 and 1994 had questioned the validity of the scores because so many were the lowest possible. Eliminating the low scores from its calculations, the panel was able to show that most of EAI's "Tesseract" schools achieved higher gains than the city as a whole.

"I'm conducting an internal investigation," said L'Tanya Sloan, who heads the school system's testing office. "Lots of things could have happened. We don't know whether the norm was applied correctly. There could have been flaws when the tests were scored. We're working with the test distributors to see what went wrong."

Philip E. Geiger, EAI division president, meanwhile, denied that the company had manipulated the test results to make the Tesseract schools look better. "We were extremely careful to use research-based approaches," he said. "We're doing Baltimore a favor by pointing this out. If we had reported this for a suburban district, red flags would have gone up all over the place. This speaks to the expectations Baltimoreans have about their kids."

Dr. Geiger said EAI knew the scores were of "questionable validity" when officials saw that "a large number of students scored as high as 76 in 1993 and dropped to 1 this year. It doesn't make sense. I'm not charging sabotage, but there is need for improvement in the administration of tests in Baltimore City."

Thomas B. Williams, senior product manager at CTB-McGraw Hill, the California company that sells the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, said the large number of 1's scored in Baltimore "sounds high but is not impossible."

The EAI panel found 5,700 1's in the 1994 tests, about 5.3 percent of the total.

The test is scored on "normal curve equivalents," a scale of 1 to 100 based on how a student's results compare to students in a national sample.

Mr. Williams pledged the company's cooperation in the city investigation.

Meanwhile, Samuel L. Banks, director of compensatory programs in city schools, sharply attacked the "arrogance and disdain of EAI and its testing experts," and he said Walter G. Amprey, the schools superintendent, "is doing a disservice to the students and staff in the system by being so close to this company."

"What right does John Golle [EAI's chief executive] have to come in here and tell our staff how to run a testing office?" Dr. Banks said. "I have nothing against Dr. Amprey or Mr. Golle, but it's time people speak out about this cult of personality."

"I think it's very unfortunate that we have all been subjected to such a barrage of reports on a variety of test scores," City Council President Mary Pat Clarke told Dr. Amprey at a meeting of the council's Education and Human Resources Committee yesterday. "I think we're approaching a credibility and patience gap of Grand Canyon dimensions.

"At this point I don't think anybody has any sense of security. . . . It's almost like the war of the test scores."

In an exchange with Dr. Amprey, Ms. Clarke, who hopes to unseat Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, asked if he planned to "turn the evaluation function of the public schools to the private sector."

"No, in a word, no," Dr. Amprey said flatly.

Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union, sharply criticized the EAI-commissioned evaluation, whose $10,000 cost will be reimbursed by taxpayers, according to the company.

The panel, chosen by EAI, was made up of eight present and retired school administrators, five from New Jersey, two from the District of Columbia and one from California.

"Based on EAI's previous track record of misinformation and out-and-out fraudulent information, I view these results very suspiciously, especially since they are from consultants hired by EAI to say what EAI wants them to say," Ms. Prudente said.

Dr. Amprey said the panels' analysis underscores the need for better administration of the tests and a thorough investigation to determine why so many students received the lowest possible scores.

"We have recognized that how we've been collecting data, how we've been interpreting that data and how we've been disseminating that data is killing us," Dr. Amprey said.

"We can do better. We recognize that now. It would be criminal for us not to change the way we're doing business just because the ideas come from someone who's from a for-profit company."

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