Two city principals suspected of testing improprieties recommended for reinstatement

Independent hearing officers rule that there's no evidence that cheating occurred and criticize state's investigation

May 31, 2012|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Citing "crude" and "incompetent" investigations into test-tampering allegations at a Baltimore elementary school, hearing officers have recommended the reinstatement of two administrators city schools CEO Andrés Alonso attempted to dismiss amid suspicions of cheating.

The findings, outlined in documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, clear Abbottston Elementary School Principal Angela Faltz and Assistant Principal Marcy Isaac, who had been held personally responsible for suspected cheating at the school on the Maryland School Assessments in the 2008-2009 school year.

The two hearing officers, attorneys hired by the school system to review facts and render independent opinions on personnel cases, concluded that Alonso had not met the burden of proof in dismissing the principals and that there was not enough reliable evidence to confirm that cheating at Abbottston had even taken place.

"It is unfortunate that Dr. Alonso rushed to judgment and humiliated dedicated employees before giving those employees an opportunity to confront the evidence and respond to the charges against them," said Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's principals union, which helped the administrators fight the allegations. "It is unfortunate that, even after learning that the analysis of his central witnesses was invalid, Dr. Alonso refused to correct the injustice."

Alonso had dismissed the administrators, who both have more than two decades of service in the city, after the Northeast Baltimore school's drastic score declines in 2010. The school's math scores dropped by about 30 percent; reading scores fell 37 percent. The previous year, the school had achieved 100 percent proficiency.

Alonso said last year that an investigation — primarily an analysis of erasures on the tests that was conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education — confirmed that cheating had taken place at the school.

"We do not comment on pending personnel actions," Alonso said in a statement Thursday. "We are committed to thorough and rigorous investigations of testing irregularities, and to maintaining the highest standards of integrity around testing in our schools, no matter how much and how long it takes us to establish those standards. Period. Our students, our principals and our teachers deserve no less."

If upheld by the city school board, the reinstatements could undermine a key part of Alonso's approach to accountability in the system. He has warned that principals at schools suspected of cheating are responsible for any improprieties taking place in their schools.

In 2010, Alonso revoked the professional license of one principal, Susan Burgess, who was held responsible for confirmed cheating at George Washington Elementary under her tenure. In an interview with The Sun at the time, Burgess denied any wrongdoing but did not fight the revocation. A state investigation found thousands of erasure marks in test booklets.

The city school board will hear oral arguments about Faltz and Isaac from the union's attorneys in June and then decide whether to reject or accept the hearing officers' opinions.

Currently, the city school system is investigating 16 more cases of suspected testing improprieties.

City school board President Neil Duke declined to comment because it is a personnel decision.

After the school system determined last year that cheating had taken place at Abbottston, Alonso lodged charges, under state education law, against the principals of willful neglect of duties, insubordination and misconduct, documents show.

According to the statement of charges, the system alleged that Faltz, in her capacity as principal, failed to ensure that the tests were administered properly and that security regulations were followed, and that she allowed inaccurate test scores to be reported to the state.

The same charges were lodged against Isaac, in her capacity as the testing administrator.

The system primarily relied on evidence from pre-tests, called "benchmarks," an analysis of students' performance over years and against the rest of the district, and erasure analysis to prove that the gains and drops were improbable without testing improprieties.

"This case centers on two words, accountability and integrity," the school system wrote in its closing arguments for the hearing, asserting that the tests were compromised.

The system concluded that both administrators "should be held accountable for [their] actions which were either deliberate or so woefully inept that they were reckless."

For nearly one year, the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association union has fought the charges. Attorneys who represented the principals union declined to comment on the case. Through attorneys, the principals also declined to comment.

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