A report last week recommending all charges be dropped against two city school department employees accused of tampering with student test booklets in order to raise their school's scores on state standardized exams is not only a personal embarrassment for schools CEO Andrés Alonso, who appears to have pursued the allegations long after it was obvious the city couldn't prove its case, but also a serious setback for the school system, whose credibility for rooting out cheating has been compromised.
As The Sun's Erica Green reported Friday, the findings of two hearing officers hired by the school department to look into the charges against Abbottston Elementary School Principal Angela Faltz and Assistant Principal Marcy Isaac found there was insufficient evidence for their dismissal last year after Mr. Alonso held them personally responsible for suspected cheating at the school on the Maryland School Assessments during the 2008-2009 school year.
The hearing officers' reports harshly criticized the school system's investigation that led to charges against the two as "crude" and "incompetent," and found that its method of analyzing erasure marks on student test booklets for evidence of cheating was so "riddled with false assumptions, mathematical errors and flawed methodology" that it "simply does not withstand any test of scientific validity."
The reports leave unanswered the question of why the school system was in such an apparent hurry to condemn Ms. Faltz and Ms. Isaac, both of whom had served the system for decades and whose efforts to turn around a formerly failing school had won the praise of their superiors and colleagues. But reading between the lines of the documents obtained by The Sun, it seems clear that Mr. Alonso wanted to make an example of them, perhaps to deter others at a time when cheating scandals inWashington, D.C., Atlanta and other cities had called into question the efficacy of urban school reforms.
Nor is there much doubt that bureaucratic ineptitude played a large role in the debacle. But the most troubling suggestion in the documents involves the possibility that the case against Ms. Faltz and Ms. Isaac was tainted from the start by the biases of the school department employees charged with leading the investigation. Testimony taken by the hearing officers suggested that those employees were so eager to confirm Mr. Alonso's suspicion that cheating had occurred that they ignored any evidence there was to the contrary while seizing on whatever looked like it might support the charges he had brought. Were they simply trying to advance their careers by telling the boss what they already knew he wanted to hear?
The most blatant example of that kind of rush to judgment was the department's uncritical acceptance of a so-called "erasure analysis" technique conducted by a state board of education employee that became a crucial piece of evidence in the school department's effort to "prove" that adults had tampered with student test booklets. When examined by the hearing officers, it turned out that the state employee who conducted the "analysis" — she was chosen for the job because of her supposed independence from the city school system — had no training or experience in the method, did not properly perform all the tasks it required, and then, shockingly, destroyed her notes on the process so that the results could never be confirmed by other experts. The hearing officers later determined she was incompetent as an expert witness and that her results were meaningless. Yet, incredibly, this amateur-hour experiment was enlisted to persuade skeptics at school headquarters that someone at Abbottston had been cheating and deserved to be fired.
We have strongly supported Mr. Alonso's badly needed reforms to the school system, including his tough stand against the taint of cheating. However, it boggles the mind that the CEO would base a decision to let go two accomplished and experienced school leaders on such a sloppy operation. Given the reports' findings, there would seem to be little alternative for the city other than, at minimum, to reinstate Ms. Faltz and Ms. Isaac to their former positions and compensate them for lost wages. They are in the unenviable position of having had their reputations, careers and livelihoods damaged by an ill-conceived and humiliating investigation whose harm can never be undone. This should be a lesson to Mr. Alonso to exercise the utmost care before acting again on similar charges against the 16 other school system employees who are currently under investigation for cheating.