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.
"I'm not disappointed because he has to go to summer school, I'm disappointed because he was never given a chance to try," Hamilton said. "I don't know if he would have passed it on his own. I can accept him trying his best and he failed. But that's not what happened."
Griffin doesn't fault his principal or his teacher because he believes that they just wanted to see the students succeed.
"I think they just wanted to see us get it down," he said. "That was going to be our biggest milestone to get over. If you see a whole 12th-grade class ready to fail over biology, you intervene."
But when district investigators came to the school, he said, the students felt fingers were pointed at them — and not the adults.
"They did the wrong thing to try and help us, but they should have manned up and took responsibility for it," he said. "Instead, they just put it on us, like it was our fault. They could have done more to fight for us."
Hamilton said she believes the school district could have made other accommodations for the students so they could still graduate. She had hoped the students would be able to retake the test or do a project in the weeks leading up to graduation.
"I feel like they took away an opportunity, his opportunity to try, by doing something morally wrong," she said. "They were adults, and he trusted them, and they failed him."
But Edwards said the school system's testing integrity protocols have been hailed as exemplary, and there were no alternatives to the sanctions given. Invalidating the scores is a state requirement when cheating is found to have occurred, and disciplining students for academic dishonesty is a district requirement.
The situation differed from other cases in which cheating was found on elementary and middle school state assessments, she said, because students at those schools were not implicated in the cheating.
"These are not 5-year-olds, these are young adults who were participants," she said. "And as such, they are being held accountable for their participation, just like the teacher is being held accountable."
"It's an unfortunate situation, but they're about to go out into the world," Edwards said. "For the young people involved, I hope this is a teachable moment for them. You make a mistake, you learn from it, and you move forward."
Baltimore Sun reporter Nayana Davis contributed to this article.
twitter.com/EricaLGCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun