Former principal denies role in George Washington cheating scandal

In first public statements since cheating evidence was made public, Susan Burgess denies test tampering

May 30, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

The former principal of George Washington Elementary School denied Sunday any involvement in test tampering at the school during her tenure, even though she is being held responsible for thousands of answers being changed on student tests two years ago.

Susan Burgess, whose professional license was revoked after an 18-month investigation by Baltimore City and state school officials uncovered evidence of cheating at the school, said she was "shocked" to learn that hundreds of the school's 2008 Maryland State Assessment booklets were altered.

"I don't know what happened and I don't know who did what," Burgess said in her first public statements since Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso and state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced the evidence of cheating on Thursday. "I just know that there was nothing that I did wrong."

"It's hard for me to think that anybody that I worked with or knew would do something like that," Burgess said. "I believed the tests to be secure. I lost a lot of sleep over it, trying to figure out what had happened."

State and city school officials launched investigations beginning in October 2008 after allegations of cheating surfaced at the school.

The investigation turned up thousands of erasure marks on hundreds of student test booklets, with nearly all of the answers being changed from wrong to right. All the erasure marks went in the same direction, Alonso said, leading him to believe the task was executed by adults.

However, the investigation did not reveal who made the changes, school officials said. No staff member at George Washington acknowledged taking part in or witnessing any cheating, and Burgess did not provide an explanation when interviewed by investigators, Alonso said.

Alonso called for the revocation of Burgess' license and said that, given the magnitude of the cheating, the school's principal should be held accountable. Burgess said she and the school's testing coordinator were the only ones who had keys to the area where the tests were being held.

Alonso said Sunday that he could not discuss the specifics of the investigation, but he reiterated his position that school leaders are responsible for what takes place in their buildings.

"The reality is that when you have cheating that is going on at that level, regardless of anything, the principal has to know," Alonso said. "Clearly, there was cheating and clearly the principal of a school is accountable."

Attempts to reach a spokesman for Grasmick were unsuccessful.

Burgess, 60, said she retired in March — with full retirement benefits — after 40 years with the school system because of the pressure of the investigation. She said losing her license was harsh, and she thought the school system tried to make an example of her.

"When you're the leader you have to take the fall," she said. "I wanted to fight because I knew I did absolutely nothing wrong, but I was tired and concerned about the children. It's like being a little person fighting a big corporation."

All teachers and administrators are required to sign a statement acknowledging the consequences for cheating on state tests, Grasmick said during last week's announcement of the investigation's findings.

"No teacher or principal can make the allegation that they did not know how serious this is," she said.

Burgess said she chose not to go before Grasmick to appeal her license suspension because she risked being charged with fraud. She does not plan to make any appeals or file any lawsuits against the school system.

Burgess, a Illinois native, said she will try to continue to work in Baltimore, though she doesn't know in what profession. "I spent all my life training to be a teacher, so I have no idea," she said.

Under Burgess' leadership, George Washington was designated a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2007. The Blue Ribbon is given to schools that have made extraordinary progress with children from low-income families or maintained a level of excellence for years.

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 Blue Ribbon designation, 100 percent of students in some grades were passing the test and nearly half had advanced scores.

Burgess said there was always immense pressure to perform on standardized tests.

"Sometimes I got so nervous about it, the teachers came to me and said, 'You're upsetting us, and you're upsetting the kids," Burgess said. "It never stops. It starts the very first day of school and it continues."

Jimmy Gittings, president of the city principals and administrators union, said the pressure to perform to state standards is intensifying and making principals more vulnerable.

"Those principals that don't show an increase in test scores are more than likely to be evaluated unsatisfactory and removed from their buildings," he said.

Still, Burgess maintains that her students' accomplishments are, and have always been, legitimate.

Burgess described how she and the school's teachers worked relentlessly over the years to find ways to help students succeed. She expressed dismay over the negative attention the school has received. She said she hopes that students' past and future accomplishments aren't questioned.

"I know they'll bounce back," she said. "They're bright and capable and deserving."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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