Baltimore highlighted in national cheating probe

District is lauded for aggressiveness, though flags are raised

March 26, 2012

The Atlanta Journal Constitution--the newspaper that single-handedly uncovered a massive cheating scandal in Atlanta's public schools last year that saw its superintendent resign in disgrace and several educators possibly facing criminal charges--took its investigation one step further this past weekend by looking at suspicious test scores in districts across the nation.

Baltimore City was one of the districts highlighted in the AJC's large-scale project called "Cheating our Children: The Journey from cheating in Atlanta Schools to suspicious tests nationwide" , published this past weekend.

The project has generated buzz nationally, as the report found that suspicious test scores have surfaced in more than 200 districts. The paper also published an online database where you can search test score shifts in each district examined.

While some of the results were jarring, Baltimore's were not.

The report highlighted the two most recent cheating scandals, Fort Worthington and Abbottston elementary schools, which The Sun broke last year. And the district was highlighted more for its aggressive monitoring, that has resulted in 16 more schools currently under investigation for test scores, than anything else.

Still, the AJC did flag more than 100 classes that experienced suspicious shifts, that wouldn't be spurred by certain variables.

While there have been questions about the AJC's methodology across the country, which they thoroughly presented when they published the story, at the end of the day, the bulk of Baltimore's flagged scores swung downward, particularly when external monitors were introduced. This supports what we saw after the 2011 Maryland School Assessment results last year. 

Some declines could be explained by other factors that weren't part of the methodology, for example, a stark decrease in the number of students tested over the last seven years, and the increase in the number of small cohorts tested. Not to mention, there are other factors like mobility, etc., that are so prevalent in urban districts, tracking a certain cohort of students year-to-year is hard to pull off. Those factors can swing scores dramatically (which we know after investigating certain schools last year whose scores plunged because of the small number of kids tested).

Here are the findings the AJC presented for Baltimore: (taken from their analysis here).

  • From 2006 through 2009, suspicious changes in 228 classes; 116 would be expected.
  • After district began aggressively investigating cheating, fewer classes flagged, and those were mostly for decreases. Odds: 1 in 100 billion.
  • History: From 2008 to 2010, investigators found evidence that educators at three elementary schools changed students’ answers on state achievement tests. Sixteen schools have been implicated.

In a statement, and an e-blast when the story was published the school system reiterated its stance that "cheating is an offense against our kids."

The district also maintained that, "there should be no question that the overwhelming majority of our teachers andadministrators are working incredibly hard and honestly on behalf of our students. Theresults prove it. And our efforts to protect the integrity of our testing in the past two yearsshow that when we saw a problem we responded to protect the work on behalf of our
kids, aggressively and responsibly. We will continue to take such aggressive measures on
behalf of the students and families of Baltimore City." 

In any event, I would highly encourage everyone to check out the project. The AJC has credibility when it comes to cracking cheating investigations, having uncovered arguably the biggest education scandal in the nation's history.

While a nationwide lens will never capture apples-to-apples comparisons, this project does reinforce that in many cases, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

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