THE controversy over private management of public schools rekindled last week with the latest release of standardized test data from Baltimore's schools.
Eight of the city's public elementary schools and one middle school are run by Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI), a Minneapolis-based firm. On average, students at the privately run EAI schools did a little worse on the standardized tests than their peers in the city's other schools.
Baltimore's partnership with EAI has been intensely watched, since until this fall it had been the largest such operation in the United States. That changed when EAI recently signed a contract to manage all the public schools in Harford, Conn. But the company's track record in Baltimore remains a critical measure of its effectiveness.
Opponents of Baltimore's experiment with privatization leapt on the newest test figures as proof of their contention that the company couldn't keep its promises - which included improved test scores - and ought to be kicked out of the public-school system.
Earlier test scores, released in June, had indicated students at the EAI schools were progressing. With the new figures apparently reversing that finding, allegations of manipulation of the data - by EAI, the city's school department, or both - have multiplied. Baltimore's City Council this week voted to launch an investigation of the test-score irregularities.
Chief among EAI's critics are the teachers' unions. Gregory Humphrey, an official with the American Federation of Teachers, says it's not just that the EAI-run schools are doing worse on test scores than other Baltimore schools, but that those same schools are doing worse than they were before the company took over. ``I think they're running out of excuses now,'' he says of the firm and its supporters.
But such criticism is considered premature by many. Donna Franks, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore public schools, says more is involved with the test-score data than immediately meets the eye.
She points to some anomalies in the data - such as wild fluctuations in the scores of individual students over the last two or three years - and suggests that the district's system of compiling and analyzing such data may itself be in need of repair.
On such nonquantitative measures as parental approval of the schools and teacher morale, says Ms. Franks, the EAI facilities are doing well. The company is also given credit for sprucing up buildings and bringing in computers. ``We think the scoring issue is important, but we don't put everything on test scores,'' she says.
Both the city and EAI have brought in outside agencies - in the city's case, researchers from the University of Maryland - to do further analyses of the level of academic achievement at the privately managed schools. Those studies could help decide whether the company's tenure in Baltimore remains secure.
One factor affecting test scores at EAI schools could be the presence of low-achieving students attracted back to the classroom by the improvements the company has made, says Tony Wagner, president of the Institute for Responsive Education, located at Boston University.
Mr. Wagner says he has seen that happen in other cities when school managers - private or public - make an effort to improve school environments and boost attendance.
Humphrey, however, says he knows of no data showing that attendance at the EAI schools in Baltimore is any better than attendance elsewhere in the city.
Mr. Wagner also asserts that test scores, by themselves, are poor indicators of how well students and schools are doing.
From his discussions with people in various parts of the country, he says, ``The No. 1 concern of many parents, teachers, and students is a lack of respect'' - of children for children, as well as for the adults who teach them. He suggests that meaningful evaluation of schools should try to examine ``the relationships essential for the promotion of learning.''
The Hartford, Conn., schools have made an effort to broadly define what they want from EAI, according to Kathy Evans, a school-board member there who helped negotiate a contract with the company.
Hartford, she says, decided not to hold EAI directly responsible for better test scores. This was partly because so many elements - from teacher performance to students' past educational experience -
figure into the scores.
And partly, says Ms. Evans, because test scores are such an easy target for those, like the unions, who are intent on seeing private-management experiments fail.
Evans also emphasizes that Hartford's arrangement with EAI is quite different from Baltimore's. The company will manage a whole district in Hartford, she notes, and it will be held accountable for implementing a strategic plan drawn up by the community.
That plan emphasizes site-based management, with greater authority given to principals and teachers. EAI's ``Tesseract'' instructional approach, which involves drawing up an educational plan for each child, will be only one of many options, says Evans.