A major case of cheating in Montgomery County has stunned one of Maryland's premier elementary schools and raised concerns over the pressure put on educators to succeed in high-stakes performance tests.
Karen B. Karch, principal of Potomac Elementary School, abruptly resigned late Wednesday amid charges that she encouraged and participated in cheating during last month's testing in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).
A fifth-grade teacher at Potomac was suspended with pay while Montgomery officials investigate all testing at the school this year.
Teachers and principals said yesterday that they feel under increasing pressure to pump up scores in the annual battery of tests, but state education officials said documented cheating on MSPAP has rarely occurred in the seven years of the program.
MSPAP officially began in 1993, and since then there have been steadily increasing promotional activities at the school level -- colorful assemblies, elaborate rewards for children when they complete the tests, clowns and principals kissing toads.
"What we're seeing is a misapplication of the values of MSPAP," said Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "It's supposed to be a measurement a school uses to build for the future, not an interschool competition."
But because the state takes over schools that fail on MSPAP and gives $2.75 million in yearly bonuses to successful schools, educators feel mounting pressure. And as Maryland moves toward tests that will determine high school graduation, that pressure will only increase, Pence said.
Carolyn Strum, a Frederick County elementary school principal who helped develop the MSPAP tests, said they were never intended to measure schools against each other. "But then the superintendents got a little more tense, and they made the principals a little more tense, and they made the teachers a little more tense."
One of her primary challenges as a principal, Strum said, "is to try to shield my teachers from the pressure." People want to do well, she added, "and sometimes they do things they're sorry for later. I'm sorry for [Karch]."
Pence blamed media attention and educators for helping create "MSPAP hysteria." Superintendents and principals brag about their rankings, and "even the celebratory way the state releases the scores every year encourages the competition."
State officials each year examine for evidence of cheating in a randomly chosen set of test booklets. Punishment for cheating -- usually letters of reprimand or suspension without pay -- are regarded as personnel matters and not publicized, but Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant state superintendent, said there's been no increase in the rate of documented infractions -- about 0.3 percent of the 180,000 pupils who take the tests yearly.
"If the kitchen's getting any hotter, we're not feeling it in increased cheating," Peiffer said.
As more states have moved to high-stakes testing like MSPAP, cheating is on the rise, said Monty Neill, executive director of Fairtest, a Massachusetts-based organization that monitors testing nationwide. "We're seeing an increase of overt cheating and of teaching to the tests, which is a kind of borderline cheating," Neill said.
MSPAP is not a test that requires multiple choices or filling in bubbles. Much of it requires essay writing, and there are few "right" or "wrong" answers, so cheating on the test is not easy, Neill said.
Since early last year, there have been cheating scandals in Texas, Illinois and New York.The Austin, Texas, school district was indicted in a cheating case.
Cheating in Montgomery was brought to the attention of state and county officials by parents at the Potomac school, which boasts among the highest MSPAP scores in Maryland. Some fifth-graders told their parents they had been coached and given extra time to complete the tests.
Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said an investigation uncovered "security violations, student coaching and extended time violations."
The county treated the incident almost as seriously as a shooting. Crisis teams were at the school yesterday, and teachers were handed a letter to be read to pupils, informing them that "our former principal, Dr. Karch, has decided not to be with us today."
"All we're concerned with today is how our kids are," said Krysti Stein, the PTA president.