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Cheating, tampering found in city schools

Officials to announce extensive violations Thursday

June 23, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Faltz led Abbottston for 11 years; Todd led Fort Worthington for four years, according to district officials.

Attempts to reach Faltz and Todd for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrator's union, declined to comment on the state reports of cheating. "At the advice of the union's attorneys, me and Dr. Alonso are working diligently to ensure that all individuals accused of being involved in this situation are treated fairly," Gittings said.

According to reports to be released today by Alonso and Grasmick, the investigation of Abbottston started with a complaint in the winter of 2010, shortly before the administration of the MSA tests.

The school system then asked the state to investigate the school's 2009 test booklets and sent extra monitors to Abbottston in Northeast Baltimore and to other schools that had seen large gains in the previous year.

"With the increased monitoring, the outcomes went down catastrophically," Alonso said.

State officials told The Sun in July that they were investigating Abbottston after the school's test scores plummeted — in some cases by more than 50 percent — from 100 percent pass rates in 2009. Abbottston's progress was so highly regarded that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited in 2009 to celebrate the students' achievement and praised the school as a model for the country.

The state then reviewed 7,000 questions and 485 test booklets from 2009, and found a pattern of incorrect answers being changed to correct ones. Alonso said the erasure analysis was similar to George Washington's, which had noted thousands of changed answers.

Last year, Faltz responded in writing to an inquiry by school officials about the test scores. She said it was "alarming to all of us that our student achievement levels have recently declined," according to a memo attained by The Baltimore Sun. "Without consultation with my leadership team and teachers, it is difficult to detail the root causes of the current student achievement data."

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."

The investigation into Fort Worthington was also spurred by complaints during the 2010 MSA testing period, officials said.

District officials met with the leadership team at the East Baltimore school and began looking into prior test results and interviewing staff and students. The district then zeroed in on attendance at the school and the 2010 test results of a select group of third-grade students. City school officials then requested that state investigators pull the test booklets of several third-graders.

"What emerged very quickly was that there were serious testing improprieties," Alonso said.

The investigation determined that students' incomplete test booklets had been completed after-hours on the first day of testing and before testing began on the second day.

Since 2008, Fort Worthington's overall test scores have remained steady, with 80 percent to 90 percent proficiency rates. In 2007, scores were significantly lower.

For example, in 2007, 55 percent of students in third grade were scoring proficient or above in reading; in 2008, that number rose to 81 percent. In 2007, 46 percent of third-graders were scoring proficient or advanced in math; in 2008, that rose to 91 percent.

The attendance analysis revealed more problems. Alonso said attendance is captured on a certain date for determining a school's adequate yearly progress. In the days leading up to the 2010 attendance date, the district uncovered a large number of changes to students' attendance records.

"Everything matters and everything counts," Alonso said.

He said the district audits attendance regularly, particularly when complaints arise.

"Because of the huge pressure of accountability, people who worry about their jobs will sacrifice the kids," he said. "Kids should not be pawns.

"Our kids can learn — the results show that over time. So, they're not cheating the system. They're cheating the kids."

This spring, the city ramped up its testing security, spending nearly $400,000 to hire and place 157 testing monitors throughout the district during the 2011 MSA testing.

"Do I expect other schools will be investigated? Of course," Alonso said. "But we have taken a systematic approach to stop [cheating]. This year, we made it extraordinarily difficult."

In a video sent out to school system employees before the MSA tests were administered in March, Alonso warned that, "if there is anybody — anybody who is thinking about any irregularity, I need you to understand that your entire professional livelihood is on the line."

"The consequences are dire," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

erica.green@baltsun.com.

twitter.com/EricaLG

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