Alonso stands on the side of finding the truth about cheating

Our view: The city needs to get to the bottom of allegations that some school personnel may have altered student answer sheets to raise test scores

September 18, 2012

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso is right to bring in outside experts to determine whether some of the city's recent test scores were tainted by cheating. The issue of integrity in school test results is paramount in Baltimore, given the district's history of low achievement, and even more so now that teacher advancement and promotion will be tied in part to test scores.

So it's somewhat curious that the union representing city school principals is criticizing a re-examination of the test scores as a waste of money; the school department reportedly is paying a leading data forensics company, Caveon Test Security, $275,000 to conduct the investigation. The firm has investigated similar allegations of cheating in the Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and other large urban school systems.

Baltimore's principals union has bitterly criticized Mr. Alonso's for firing principals at schools where there was evidence that student test booklets had been tampered with in 2009 and 2010. Its president says the evidence didn't support a conclusion that cheating occurred and that Mr. Alonso is engaged in a personal vendetta targeting educators he dislikes. Shortcomings in the data analysis that led to one principal's firing bolsters the union's case. But under those circumstances, you'd think the union would welcome a reputable outside investigator capable of finally resolving the dispute.

Instead, the union seems more interested in using the issue as leverage in its long-running power struggle with the CEO than in determining the facts. And it's put the principals in the odd position of appearing to care more about proving Mr. Alonso wrong than promoting what's best for the city's school children.

Here's why: If independent investigators found that cheating did in fact occur at some schools, Mr. Alonso's decision to fire the principals at those schools would likely be vindicated — and union's effort to have them reinstated would suffer a defeat.

But a proven case of cheating would also call into question the integrity of the gains registered by all the other schools in the system, whose improvements in test scores would immediately come under suspicion. In effect, the whole reform effort Mr. Alonso has led since arriving in Baltimore would be tainted because there would be no way of knowing whether any of the gains that occurred on his watch were real.

On the other hand, an investigation which found that Mr. Alonso erred in his allegations of cheating — and that the principals he believed responsible were terminated unjustly — obviously would be deeply embarrassing to Mr. Alonso's for what it said about his judgment and personnel management skills. But paradoxically, it would also vindicate his reform agenda by demonstrating that the rapid gains students made during the first three years of his tenure were based on solid accomplishment.

If the principals who were terminated did nothing wrong, they surely are entitled to get their jobs back, and the system should focus on looking for reasons other than cheating for why test scores have fallen recently in some schools.

And if it ultimately turns out that cheating did in fact occur, and that Mr. Alonso was justified in firing the principals, he can hardly be expected to count it as a victory. It would likely diminish the political capital the CEO has enjoyed since coming to Baltimore and make further reforms more difficult.

Fundamentally, this isn't about Mr. Alonso, and it's not about the principals. It's about getting to the truth. We need definitive answers to the question of whether cheating occurred so we can tell whether Baltimore's hard-fought effort to reform its schools is actually producing the results everyone wants to see. That's a much bigger question than the union's dispute with the schools CEO, and it's more than worth the relatively modest sum the school department system is spending on an investigation that one hopes will resolve this issue once and for all.

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