How can Alonso rebuild trust?

Our view: After a cheating scandal at George Washington Elementary, the Baltimore schools CEO must take concrete action to convince the public it can't happen again

May 27, 2010

Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick deserve credit for their extensive investigation into suspected cheating at George Washington Elementary School. They did not stop after initial denials of any wrongdoing from the school and went so far as to re-examine hundreds of test booklets to compare the pattern of erasures from one year to the next. That signals a willingness to dig deep for evidence of a scandal they would surely rather not have found.

From Ms. Grasmick's perspective, the public acknowledgment of the evident cheating, the replacement of the principal who was there at the time, the revocation of her teaching license and the acknowledgment to the U.S. Department of Education that its Blue Ribbon award for the school should be called into question, should settle the matter. There has only been one other comparable instance of apparent widespread cheating in the state in recent years — in 2006, on the Eastern Shore — and the thorough and public way she and Mr. Alonso handled the situation should send a message to other teachers or principals who might be tempted to take a shortcut to good results in high stakes testing.

But Mr. Alonso faces a more difficult problem.

Even if the actions he and Ms. Grasmick took are enough to scare potential cheaters straight, he has to worry about how this incident feeds into a cynical narrative about Baltimore's students and the city in general. Many in this region are quick to discount signs of progress in Baltimore — whether it's rising student test scores or dropping crime rates — as politically motivated manipulations by those in power. If the statistics are getting better, the thinking goes, it's because somebody's cooking the books. That cynicism is only likely to increase as the state moves toward making student test scores a part of teacher evaluations — and, eventually, gives them a role in determining educators' salaries.

Mr. Alonso had no hand in creating this attitude, but he has to deal with it. As he has said many times, the success of his students depends in large measure on the belief by the community that they can and should achieve. The burden he faces is in finding a way to convince people that not only was this an isolated incident but that he has taken steps to make sure it can't happen again.

Based on the evidence Mr. Alonso and Ms. Grasmick compiled, this case does not appear to be one of an individual teacher or two giving secret coaching to students. In fact, it's likely the students didn't know anything was happening at all. Instead, it appears to be a systematic effort by one or more people to go over the answer sheets after the students completed the exams and change the answers, a tedious process of erasing one answer bubble and filling in another.

The manpower needed to conduct full and independent monitoring of the exams may be more than the district can provide. But changes to the exam process could make it much more difficult for some other school to repeat what happened at George Washington. Test booklets arrive at schools well in advance of the exam and are kept there, supposedly under lock and key, for as much as a week afterward. When Mr. Alonso and Ms. Grasmick sought to make sure there was no cheating at George Washington last year, they sealed the exams and removed them from the school immediately after the test. That should become standard practice.

Some will point to this incident as evidence that the reliance on standardized testing and the practice of rewarding teachers and schools for their students' achievement on those exams is a mistake. But that's like concluding that evidence of blood doping in cycling is reason to cancel the Tour de France. We rely on the exams because they are the only practical way to judge whether students are learning, whether teachers and schools are effective, and whether we are adequately preparing our children for higher education and work. We just need to make sure the integrity of the process is beyond reproach.

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