All that was standing between AuQwan Griffin and a high school diploma was a state biology exam and a conflicted conscience. That crossroads led to the biggest teachable moment of his educational career.
Griffin and 10 fellow students at the Career Academy were given answers to the High School Assessments by their biology teacher, according to city school officials, who investigated when they saw unusually high scores at the alternative high school in North Baltimore.
The cheating cost Griffin and his classmates their diplomas; they must go back to summer school if they want to graduate. The teacher also has been disciplined, officials said. School leaders felt that both the students and teacher should be held responsible.
But Griffin and his mother feel the students are teenagers put in a difficult position that would be hard for some adults to navigate. They blame the teacher. (School officials, citing personnel policy, have not identified the teacher.)
"We didn't know it was going to be that kind of help," Griffin said. "You can say it was our fault for taking the answers, but look at our situation: one test away from graduating. Yeah, we did it, but it was just because we wanted that day like everybody else.
"I would have rather failed it on my own terms. Now, it's like we have to suffer for something the school put us up to. It was like robbing a bank with a gun to your head."
The HSAs are a graduation requirement throughout the state.
The investigation is continuing, but officials said the teacher liked the students and wanted to see them graduate. They said the teacher admitted to providing the answers, but they declined to describe the disciplinary action. No other adults have been implicated in the cheating.
"We are taking appropriate actions based on what we know," said Tisha Edwards, interim CEO of the school system. "We're clear there were testing violations, and we're holding all parties accountable."
The incident is the latest in a series of cheating scandals that have come to light in the city school system over the past few years. Since 2010, school officials have acknowledged that at least three schools cheated on the Maryland School Assessments, which are administered to students in grades three through eight.
Last year, the district also said it was investigating a school where dozens of students' grades had been changed to promote them.
While city school officials described the Career Academy incident as a failure in judgment by the teacher and students, Griffin's mother, Kiesha Hamilton, blames the adults who were entrusted to help struggling students complete high school.
Griffin attended the alternative school after his grades slipped at W.E.B. DuBois High, and he needed the extra help to ensure he graduated by age 18, she said.
The Career Academy serves students ages 16 to 21; it is one of many alternative programs for students who don't have enough credits to graduate on time.
Had Griffin graduated, he would have participated in W.E.B. DuBois' ceremony last Saturday. Instead he plans to attend summer school, where he can retake the exam or do a "bridge project" to fulfill the requirement. If he passes, he would receive his diploma.
Griffin said that at the beginning of the school year, his teacher and principal discouraged him from completing projects as an alternative to passing the biology exam, even though he had done more than a dozen other projects to pass two other courses.
The day of the test, Griffin said, their teacher pulled the students out of the testing room and took them into the science lab. Griffin said the teacher then provided them with the answers.
Career Academy Principal Gus Herrington did not return several calls for comment.
Hamilton said she's most upset that her son was denied the chance to take the exam on his own.
She never expected that he'd get the high score he received, but she thinks he could have done a project, or scored just high enough to graduate. About half of Baltimore's students pass the High School Assessments by doing bridge projects, city data show.