Widespread cheating found at city elementary school

City and state education officials have uncovered widespread cheating on state tests at a Southwest Baltimore elementary school once held up as an example of against-the-odds achievement and have recently revoked the professional license of the principal, whom they are holding responsible.

Investigators reviewed hundreds of Maryland State Assessment booklets at George Washington Elementary and found thousands of erasure marks. In nearly all instances, the answers were changed from wrong to right.

The 18-month investigation, however, did not reveal who altered the test books. No staff member acknowledged taking part in or witnessing any cheating, and the principal, who was interviewed by investigators, did not provide an explanation, according to Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso.

He said evidence of deception is clear at the National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and that he believes the principal at the time, Susan Burgess, should be held accountable. Burgess, 60, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. She did not respond to phone calls, and no one answered the door at her home.

"It looked like a schoolwide orchestrated effort," said Leslie Wilson, the state education official in charge of testing. "This was across all grade levels and reading and math. … It obviously happened after the students finished testing."

What is particularly perplexing, according to Alonso, is that students' tests probably didn't need to be changed. They performed well enough in 2009, when state and city monitors swooped in after compiling evidence of test tampering, to meet federally mandated standards.

Scores at George Washington Elementary, where nine out of 10 children are poor, have been a source of pride for the city. When Burgess came to the school in 2003, 32 percent of third-graders passed the state reading test. By July 2007, when the school was awarded the prestigious Blue Ribbon designation, 100 percent of students in some grades were passing the test and nearly half had advanced scores.

Alonso said he is concerned that the case will fuel skepticism among critics who have questioned whether a district with high numbers of black and Hispanic children could make the solid gains shown on recent test scores.

"You had a school that was actually progressing, and yet there was someone in the school who did not believe in the kids and the adults," he said.

Pressure on teachers and principals to improve test scores each year is intense. But state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said cheating of the magnitude found at George Washington is relatively rare. A comparable case occurred on the Eastern Shore in 2006 at Rock Hall Elementary School.

Nearly all of the 160 state investigations in the past year involve the improper handling of tests — such as leaving them in an unlocked room — and not cheating, according to state officials.

Alonso is expected to brief George Washington staff members this morning about the findings and will hold a news conference later with Grasmick.

The city school system had received a handful of allegations about cheating during Burgess' tenure. An investigation was started in fall 2008, but after talking to the staff, school officials determined that no one had seen anything improper, Alonso said.

A few months later, Alonso said, he became suspicious after a visit to the Blue Ribbon school, where he found that enrollment had dropped and parent involvement was down. He asked his staff to examine how well the school's fifth-graders did when they went to middle school; the study showed that their scores dropped precipitously.

A parent, Vicky Harding, complained to Alonso and the state that she had heard there was tampering with the test. At numerous school board meetings in the past year, Harding has criticized the school board and Alonso.

Alonso said he was growing concerned in March 2009 after reviewing the drop between fifth- and sixth-grade scores and that he called Grasmick and said, "I think we have a problem."

Since the Maryland State Assessments were coming up that month, Alonso and Grasmick decided to flood the school with monitors to stop any cheating or spot abnormalities.

They also made sure that the test booklets were wrapped up and carried away after the students finished. Usually, the booklets stay in a locked area in a school for up to a week.

When the state testing results came back last summer, George Washington's scores had plunged by 25 percentage points. About that time, Burgess took a leave of absence and Alonso placed a new principal in the school.

But there was no direct evidence of cheating, and a review of the principal's e-mails for a year turned up no evidence. Still, teachers said they were sometimes surprised that certain children in their classes had passed the tests.

So, state officials decided to dig deeper. They asked a contractor who grades tests to pull all the test booklets from the 2007-2008 school year. State workers meticulously compared the number of erasures on each child's 2008 and 2009 tests. Grasmick said they looked at 27,000 answers for 383 tests. What they found on the older test booklets was that 90 percent of the time the wrong answers were erased and changed to the right answers.

In addition, there were wide discrepancies in the number of erasures for individual students from one year to the next. And they saw that the changes were made not in a single grade or a single classroom but in all grades that were tested — three through five — and in math and reading.

They concluded, Alonso said, that cheating was so widespread that the principal either participated or should have known about it. Alonso said he believes that one person would have been able to change the answers in the test booklets, perhaps at night or over a weekend.

He said he suspects that the cheating might have gone on for more than one year, but there is no way to prove that because the test booklets from previous years have been thrown away.

The small school in Pigtown had seemed a gem because large numbers of children from low-income families were scoring at the advanced level. In 2005, then-first lady Laura Bush visited the school to observe a program that taught good behavior to first-graders. When the school made remarkable gains on tests in 2007, The Baltimore Sun highlighted the school, saying it had as many high achievers as many suburban schools in the state.

That year, the school was awarded the National Blue Ribbon, given to schools that have made extraordinary progress with children from low-income families or maintained a level of excellence for years.

At the time, Burgess told The Sun: "I never dreamed that this would happen. … We just wanted to do what's best for kids."

Grasmick said she has informed the U.S. Department of Education, which hands out the Blue Ribbon status, about the cheating case, but it has declined to take away the school's award. In part, she said, the recognition was given to the school in years before the cheating can be proven. Rock Hall, which also received the award, has not had its designation removed either.

Burgess retired in March, and Grasmick said the former principal's license to teach in the state was revoked May 13 because of the improprieties. Burgess did not appeal the revocation, Grasmick said.

While the state could bring charges of fraud, it will not do so because Burgess is not protesting the revocation of her license.

Alonso said the school system investigates 10 to 15 allegations of testing improprieties each year. He declined to say whether any such investigations are continuing. "I can't respond, because that would be unfair to the school," he said.

Alonso said he's determined to protect the integrity of test scores and wants this message to be delivered to principals and teachers in the school system: "Don't even think of it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erica Green contributed to this article.

Cheating investigation

October 2008: The city school system receives a complaint from a parent at George Washington Elementary School that alleges cheating on the Maryland School Assessments. The city opens an investigation.

February 2009: City schools CEO Andres Alonso launches an analysis of the test scores of George Washington fifth-graders after they moved on to sixth grade at other schools. The analysis showed that their test scores declined, substantially more than students at other city schools. The city system informs the State Department of Education that it would conduct intensive monitoring during the MSAs in March.

May 2009: After monitoring fourth-graders as they took the MSA reading test, a state education official compares their 2009 booklets with those in 2008. He found a high number of erasures in 2008, with more than 90 percent resulting in correct answers.

July 2009: The MSA test results for 2009 show that scores fell more at George Washington than at any other city school, but the school still made adequate yearly progress. In 2008, 96.4 percent of the students tested achieved scores of proficient or advanced; that figure fell 22.4 percentage points in 2009.

August 2009-November 2009: Because of the findings from the sampling in May, the State Department of Education conducts an in-depth study of the MSA tests in 2008 and 2009 across all content areas and grades.

May 2010: The teaching certificate of George Washington's principal, Susan Burgess, is revoked at the request of Alonso because of a violation of test security and data reporting policies. The state's report concludes that at least one person at the school changed multiple answers from incorrect to correct on the 2008 reading and math tests for grades three through five.

Source: Maryland State Department of Education