THIS IS THE Parable of the Improbable Gain.
Third- and fifth- graders at two Baltimore elementary schools did so well on the 1995 state MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program) tests that the state Department of Education set out to discover the secret of success.
"Our intent was nothing but honorable," said Mark Moody, assistant state superintendent for results and planning. "We wanted to know if there was something all of the top-performing schools were doing that they could share with the others."
So state officials "pulled" the test booklets of the successful schools and began reading. "Much to our dismay," said Moody, "we found instances where entire essay passages were repeated verbatim. We were chagrined. We'd set out to find the Rosetta stone, and we'd found this. My God, we thought, how much of this is going on?"
The state proceeded to pull a cross-section of 4,500 answer booklets from 106 Maryland schools. It was not an easy undertaking. The test is graded by a California contractor, and the booklets, bar-coded so that none of 600 trained graders could identify a student or school, had to be scanned by a computer, pulled out one by one and shipped across the country.
The state Department of Education trained its own graders and put them to work. The investigation cost Maryland taxpayers $50,000.
The result: "Teacher interference" occurred at six schools, less flagrant infractions at eight others.
Given time limits and the MSPAP format, Moody said, the gross cheating had to involve a "crier," someone who called out the essay passages or wrote them on the chalkboard, someone knowingly cheating. The names of the offending schools were turned over to local school districts for subsequent investigation and disciplining of the offenders.
Moody and his staff were relieved. The MSPAP testing apparently was sound. In all, Moody said, only 0.3 percent of the 180,000 Marylanders who took the tests committed an infraction.
State officials refuse to identify the offending schools, or even the districts. But the 1995 scores for the violating schools were adjusted downward, dramatically downward in the cases of Tench Tilghman and Glenmount elementary schools in Baltimore, and the adjustment was spotted by Sun staffers. The rest is a recent history of headlines and still more embarrassment for city schools.
In all of this, no one in authority has bothered to ask the students what happened, and the seventh-graders at Glenmount are not happy about the C -- for Cheating -- their elders have affixed to their chests. Twenty of them, fifth-graders when they took the MSPAP tests two years ago, sent letters to The Education Beat last week defending their honor, denying wrongdoing and demanding an apology from state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
A recurring -- and very sad -- claim in the students' letters is that Glenmount would never have been investigated had it been a suburban school. "It's very unfair that the people think that just because we're a public school in the city, we should be expected to end up with a low score," wrote Gurpreet Jaswal.
Carole Lendosky, an aide at Glenmount, said the school's seventh-graders "have been an excellent class all the way through. Their grades are excellent. They ace all the state tests. Are we to believe they've cheated their way through seven grades? It looks to me that people outside Baltimore just can't believe it when we do something good."
Moody bristles at the accusation that the state follows what people in the testing business call "The Law of Improbable Gains." Some states routinely investigate when schools score higher on tests than their social and economic status would predict, Moody said, but Maryland officials think it's a terrible practice. "Never, never, never, never!" he insisted.
But though the state wasn't obeying the improbable gains law when it took an interest in Glenmount, it was an improbable gain that caused the school to stand out.
Let us assume Glenmount cheated. It wasn't turned in by an angry teacher, an envious principal elsewhere in the city, a conscientious student. The school's cheating led directly to the finding of cheating. Oh, what a tangled web we weave!
And a corollary: If you're going to cheat, cheat a little at first and work your way up.
Cheers for CBS documentary
Five cheers for CBS Television and its two-hour documentary on Joppatowne High School on Thursday night. This was an old-fashioned program of the kind we used to see before documentaries became morality plays.
Over a span of months, CBScrews followed "The Class of 2000" at home and school. We met parents and teachers and grieved over the loss of two students in car accidents within days of each other.
The Education Beat's favorite character was Barbara Day, the health teacher about whom one mother said, "I can't talk to Genny the way Ms. Day talks to her." Every school has a Barbara Day.
Pub Date: 1/26/97