Widespread cheating found at city elementary school

An 18-month investigation shows thousands of erasures on state test booklets

May 27, 2010|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

City and state education officials have uncovered widespread cheating on state tests at a Southwest Baltimore elementary school once held up as an example of against-the-odds achievement and have recently revoked the professional license of the principal, whom they are holding responsible.

Investigators reviewed hundreds of Maryland State Assessment booklets at George Washington Elementary and found thousands of erasure marks. In nearly all instances, the answers were changed from wrong to right.

The 18-month investigation, however, did not reveal who altered the test books. No staff member acknowledged taking part in or witnessing any cheating, and the principal, who was interviewed by investigators, did not provide an explanation, according to Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso.

He said evidence of deception is clear at the National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and that he believes the principal at the time, Susan Burgess, should be held accountable. Burgess, 60, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. She did not respond to phone calls, and no one answered the door at her home.

"It looked like a schoolwide orchestrated effort," said Leslie Wilson, the state education official in charge of testing. "This was across all grade levels and reading and math. … It obviously happened after the students finished testing."

What is particularly perplexing, according to Alonso, is that students' tests probably didn't need to be changed. They performed well enough in 2009, when state and city monitors swooped in after compiling evidence of test tampering, to meet federally mandated standards.

Scores at George Washington Elementary, where nine out of 10 children are poor, have been a source of pride for the city. When Burgess came to the school in 2003, 32 percent of third-graders passed the state reading test. By July 2007, when the school was awarded the prestigious Blue Ribbon designation, 100 percent of students in some grades were passing the test and nearly half had advanced scores.

Alonso said he is concerned that the case will fuel skepticism among critics who have questioned whether a district with high numbers of black and Hispanic children could make the solid gains shown on recent test scores.

"You had a school that was actually progressing, and yet there was someone in the school who did not believe in the kids and the adults," he said.

Pressure on teachers and principals to improve test scores each year is intense. But state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said cheating of the magnitude found at George Washington is relatively rare. A comparable case occurred on the Eastern Shore in 2006 at Rock Hall Elementary School.

Nearly all of the 160 state investigations in the past year involve the improper handling of tests — such as leaving them in an unlocked room — and not cheating, according to state officials.

Alonso is expected to brief George Washington staff members this morning about the findings and will hold a news conference later with Grasmick.

The city school system had received a handful of allegations about cheating during Burgess' tenure. An investigation was started in fall 2008, but after talking to the staff, school officials determined that no one had seen anything improper, Alonso said.

A few months later, Alonso said, he became suspicious after a visit to the Blue Ribbon school, where he found that enrollment had dropped and parent involvement was down. He asked his staff to examine how well the school's fifth-graders did when they went to middle school; the study showed that their scores dropped precipitously.

A parent, Vicky Harding, complained to Alonso and the state that she had heard there was tampering with the test. At numerous school board meetings in the past year, Harding has criticized the school board and Alonso.

Alonso said he was growing concerned in March 2009 after reviewing the drop between fifth- and sixth-grade scores and that he called Grasmick and said, "I think we have a problem."

Since the Maryland State Assessments were coming up that month, Alonso and Grasmick decided to flood the school with monitors to stop any cheating or spot abnormalities.

They also made sure that the test booklets were wrapped up and carried away after the students finished. Usually, the booklets stay in a locked area in a school for up to a week.

When the state testing results came back last summer, George Washington's scores had plunged by 25 percentage points. About that time, Burgess took a leave of absence and Alonso placed a new principal in the school.

But there was no direct evidence of cheating, and a review of the principal's e-mails for a year turned up no evidence. Still, teachers said they were sometimes surprised that certain children in their classes had passed the tests.

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