After announcing that cheating had occurred at two elementary schools in the past two years, Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso vowed Thursday that results of the 2011 Maryland School Assessment tests would be the most "extraordinarily transparent set of scores of any urban district in America."
In a news conference to discuss cheating probes at Abbottston and Fort Worthington elementary schools, Alonso called the incidents everything from "figuratively criminal" to an assault on the district's progress over the past three years — a time when state and national test scores rose.
But he pledged that the 2011 tests scores, scheduled for release next week, would reflect an unprecedented crackdown on cheating in the district.
"I am tired of the ongoing debate about the nature of our progress, when there has been so much progress over time," said Alonso, who spoke at the news conference with State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. He said that publicizing the cheating is double-edged because, "on the one hand, it awakens the skeptics. On the other hand, it becomes an opportunity to demonstrate that it's not tolerated."
As first reported by The Baltimore Sun, state investigators found that staff members at Abbottston and Fort Worthington had tampered with test booklets on the 2009 and 2010 state assessment tests, including changing students' answers from wrong to right. The investigators also found that Fort Worthington had inflated attendance rates to meet annual progress goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
It's the second year in a row that Alonso has had to publicly acknowledge cheating in city schools, including those that have received national accolades for their success.
Abbottston drew attention in 2009 for its high test scores. U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, who has acknowledged that the federal law sets unrealistic goals for schools, visited Abbottston that year to praise its achievements.
Liz Utrup, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said that testing integrity is "critical to maintaining the integrity of education professionals, schools and our nation's education system." She added, "The department urges state and local officials to prioritize measures for secure testing and data recording so students aren't cheated by adult misconduct."
At the news conference, Alonso emphasized the clampdown on cheating this year, vowing that when the Maryland School Assessment results are released next week, they'd be clean. The tests are given to students in grades three through eight in reading and math.
The school system spent nearly $400,000 to place monitors in all 200 of its schools and to implement stringent protocols — such as taping up all boxed test booklets with tamper-proof tape — ensuring that test materials were secured every day.
Still, Alonso warned: "We will come before you again, because the people who didn't get the message last year — and there are a few, and it only takes one or two — were not ready for this. And we're not going to let a single instance pass."
He also indicated that Maryland's new teacher evaluation system, which is partly based on student progress, will spur a "perverse incentive to do something wrong." He said this was particularly true in the city, where teachers passed a contract last fall tying their salaries to performance evaluations.
More cheating investigations are pending, Alonso said, as Abbottston and Fort Worthington were two of four schools referred to the state last year.
Last year, George Washington Elementary School, a national Blue Ribbon school, was found to have cheated on the 2008 MSA. The principal, Susan Burgess was stripped of her professional license.
Because personnel actions are continuing, school officials said they could not discuss what sanctions, if any, would be imposed on the principals who led Abbottston and Forth Worthington at the time of the cheating. Officials did not indicate that the principals were involved in the cheating.
However, Grasmick said that those involved could face losing their professional licenses. Alonso has requested that sanction in the past, saying that if principals didn't know about the cheating, they should have.
Alonso said he did not know if the cheating required the school system to pursue criminal charges, which has happened in other districts. He also said he did not know if there were any implications for federal funding that could be tied to test scores and attendance.
Grasmick said the state's cheating investigations are not limited to Baltimore.
"The actions of very few people can contaminate the confidence in public education, in this city, and any other places it occurs in the state of Maryland," Grasmick said. "We are very grateful that there is such attention to this. It has everything to do with what adults model for children in terms of integrity."
State officials said the department receives about 175 to 200 complaints each year about cheating in schools, but nearly all are minor infractions. For example, teachers report that they gave their class an extra five minutes on the test or failed to give a special education student legally mandated accommodations.
Officials said that most of the serious infractions in other districts occur in a teacher's classroom rather than school-wide. In most cases, the teachers are sent warning letters.
Grasmick said the state's test security is "recognized as one of the most stringent in the country."
Last year, the state halted a practice that allowed teachers to look at exams in advance. It has other security protocols, such as sending out random monitors and locking the tests up. Next year, the state will review every test booklet, Grasmick said
In reviewing booklets from Abbottston's 2009 state assessments, investigators determined that the school's scores had been compromised, officials said. The state reviewed 7,000 questions and 485 test booklets and found a pattern of incorrect answers being changed to correct ones.
Alonso ordered a state probe into Abbottston's test scores in July. This week, he said it was because the scores dropped "catastrophically" when the school was monitored in 2010. Some of the school's scores plummeted from 100 percent pass rates in 2009 to less than 50 percent in 2010.Jimmy Gittings, president of the city administrators' union, defended Abbottston's former principal, Angela Faltz. He said he had proof that she did not engage in the cheating, but couldn't provide it because it is part of litigation. Attempts to reach Faltz were unsuccessful.
"I will not sit back and have her name dragged through the mud," Gittings said. The precedent of holding principals responsible for cheating at a school concerned him "immensely," he said, adding that there are "certain things that principals cannot control."
The Sun reported last year that the school was being investigated, and Gittings said that during that year, "Angie held her head high because she knew she had done nothing wrong."
He said the ultimate goal of the administrators' union and its legal team is to place Faltz back in a school.
Alonso said the investigation into Fort Worthington was spurred by complaints during the 2010 MSA testing period, including reports that staff members were giving special accommodations to small groups of students.
District officials met with the school's leaders and began looking into prior test results and interviewing staff members 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, and requested that state investigators pull the test booklets of several of them.
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. The investigation also found that attendance records were altered in 2010 to show that more students had come to the school in the days leading up to testing.
During the time investigators said the cheating occurred, the principal assigned to Fort Worthington was Shaylin Todd, district officials confirmed. Todd could not be reached for comment.
It is the first time the district has acknowledged attendance-tampering, and Alonso said only about a third of city schools met federally mandated attendance goals this year.
He said the school system often audits attendance, and 24 schools have been flagged for possible attendance improprieties this year.
Alonso called all of the improprieties "a crucible we have to go through in order to make the system better in the long run."
Several local political leaders and education advocates spoke out in support of the school system Thursday, denouncing the cheating but praising how the school system handled it.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said she "finds these actions unacceptable and commends Dr. Alonso for continuing to act aggressively to protect the integrity of student testing." He added, "She fully supports his strong, proactive efforts in holding those responsible accountable for their actions."
However, on Thursday morning, Otis Rolley, one of the mayor's challengers in the Democratic primary, held a news conference asserting that the mayor and the school system should be held accountable.
"We are not giving a quality education to our kids," said Rolley. "It's not good enough for my kids, and it's not good enough for any children in Baltimore City."
Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Julie Scharper contributed to this article.
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