State education officials are investigating possible testing violations at a Northeast Baltimore elementary school where in some cases 100 percent of students passed annual reading and math exams last year but where scores plunged by as much as half this year.
Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso said this week that he had asked state officials to investigate the drops in performance by third- and fourth-graders at Abbottston Elementary, a school so highly regarded that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited last year to celebrate the students' achievement and praised it as a model for the country.
Abbottston is at least the second nationally acclaimed school in the city to be investigated for violations on the Maryland School Assessment test. A state investigation of George Washington Elementary concluded this spring that test booklets had been tampered with. The school, which holds a prestigious Blue Ribbon designation, was paid a visit by then-first lady Laura Bush for its accomplishments.
"If we think we have an obligation to refer a school to the state for investigation, we do," Alonso said. "We make no judgments, and we should not reach conclusions without evidence. But we would rather be proven wrong than ignore any matter where we think the obligation is there.
"I don't know what happened" at Abbottston, he said, "but I hope to find out."
The percentage of third-graders at the school who passed the state reading test plummeted from 100 last year to 50 this year. The percentage of fourth-graders reading at proficient or advanced levels dropped nearly 43 points, from 100 percent to 57 percent. Fourth-grade pass rates in math fell from 100 percent to 68 percent, and fifth-graders' pass rates in reading dropped from 100 percent to 80 percent.
Alonso would not comment on whether he believed the school had cheated in previous years, saying that it was unfair to draw such conclusions about a school without facts.
He did say, however, that Abbottston was one of a handful of schools that were "blanketed" this year with central office monitors during MSA testing. The city sent 120 monitors — the most ever — into schools that noted top gains and top losses in the past "to look for explanations," Alonso said.
The CEO said he could not discuss any more details because of the pending investigation.
"As I said before, if there's cheating in a school I will find out," he said. "So nobody should be surprised if I find schools cheating, because they are the exception."
In the case of George Washington, the state stripped the school's principal, Susan Burgess, of her professional license, at Alonso's request. At the time, Alonso said that even if she was not involved in the widespread tampering of test booklets, she should have known about the cheating. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Burgess denied any wrongdoing.
The city's administrators union says it will provide lawyers to help defend Abbottston's principal of 11 years, Angela Lewis Faltz.
Union President Jimmy Gittings said he debated with school officials late Wednesday, a day after the MSA results were released, over whether Faltz should remain principal of Abbottston. Gittings said Friday that no agreement was reached and that Faltz was removed from the school Thursday, at the request of the city schools' executive director of elementary and middle schools.
"My suggestion, for the fairness of everyone, was that she not be removed from the building because that would be giving the impression of guilt," Gittings said.
Alonso would not comment on Faltz's status, citing personnel regulations. The principal did not return calls for comment or answer a knock at her door Thursday.
Gittings provided The Baltimore Sun with a copy of Faltz's response Wednesday afternoon to school officials, who sought an explanation for the school's test scores.
"Without consultation with my leadership team and teachers, it is difficult to detail the root causes of the current student achievement data," Faltz wrote. She went on to suggest that the "assignment of two new teachers to the critical tested grades may have been a factor" and that the "instructional supports provided to teachers did not yield the desired results."
She said that it was "alarming to all of us that our student achievement levels have recently declined."
Gittings said that Faltz had "devoted her life" to Abbottston and its achievement and that no allegations of wrongdoing — academic or otherwise — had been lodged against her during her tenure. He predicted the principal "will be found innocent."