Parents feel cheated by test tampering

Parents expressed outrage Thursday that someone at Baltimore's George Washington Elementary School changed thousands of answers on state standardized tests in a cheating scandal that is calling into question the school's hard-fought achievements.

"It's deceiving," said Linda Thompson, a mother who was picking up her first-grader at the Southwest Baltimore school that was awarded a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence designation in 2007. "I feel cheated."

Thompson said she has always boasted about her daughter's Blue Ribbon school but said she believes the incident will bring into doubt students' recent gains. "They already don't expect much from the kids because of the area," she said. "This is terrible."

City and state education officials uncovered cheating on the 2008 Maryland State Assessment that involved all grades tested in reading and math at the school. An 18-month investigation showed that test books were altered but did not reveal who was responsible. 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 schools CEO Andres Alonso.

The teaching license of the principal, Susan Burgess, whom Alonso holds responsible for the cheating, has been revoked. Several attempts by The Baltimore Sun to reach Burgess, 60, have been unsuccessful. An official with the city school administrators' union said Thursday that he encouraged Burgess to retire in March, a move that allows her to collect her full benefits.

Other parents at the school Thursday said they had received an automated recording from Alonso in the morning that advised them that the school would be the center of attention due to "some problems" that officials had found.

"I thought it was [abuse] or something crazy," said Paula Warren, who has a kindergartener at the school. "Then I heard cheating, and that's just as crazy."

Alonso and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick held a joint news conference Thursday morning to announce the revelations, first reported by The Baltimore Sun, and called the cheating at the school "tragic" and "personal."

"We take this as the most fundamental aggression against our belief system, and our belief system is that every kid can achieve," Alonso said.

Scores at George Washington, 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 Blue Ribbon designation, 100 percent of students in some grades were passing the test, and nearly half had advanced scores.

During the news conference, Grasmick and Alonso outlined the investigation carried out by the state, in which hundreds of test booklets were reviewed, turning up thousands of eraser marks that proved the cheating. Not only were nearly all answers changed from wrong to right, but the direction of every eraser mark went one way, Alonso said. He said it was clear that the tampering was done by an adult.

"The erasures were outstanding in terms of the number, far exceeding anything that would be a normal response of students changing an answer," Grasmick said. "It was a total aberration of what we would ever find."

Alonso said that despite the fact that it wasn't clear who had tampered with the tests, the responsibility lies with the school's leadership. "My strong feeling is that when you have that level of violation, whether or not the principal knows about it is irrelevant," he said. He said the actions of whoever executed the tampering was a "crime against the professionals in the school system."

Jimmy Gittings, president of the city principals and administrators union, said Thursday that he believed that Alonso had to hold school leaders accountable but that revoking Burgess' license may have been unnecessary.

Gittings said he thought "the travesty was over" after he advised Burgess to retire in March with a full benefits package as the investigation at the school intensified.

"There was no direct evidence that Ms. Burgess made the changes," he said. "Let her go and live her life as a retiree of the Baltimore public school system."

Gittings said he fears a precedent has been set in revoking teaching licenses that could affect future principals who are in the middle of a controversy, even if they are not found guilty of any wrongdoing.

And with enormous pressure to perform up to state testing standards, principals are vulnerable, Gittings said. "Those principals that don't show an increase in test scores are more than likely to be evaluated unsatisfactory and removed from their buildings," he said.

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, expressed concern about the cheating in a statement Thursday. "The teachers, paraprofessionals and students at the school deserve better than the black mark this is going to leave," she said in the statement.

She added, "It is awful to think that the pressure to succeed probably led to this drastic measure."

One expert in standardized testing practices says that pressure will continue to mount.

"The pressures are tremendous on educators in schools to get the scores up," said Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. "This is yet another reason to back off the overemphasis on high-stakes tests and move toward classroom assessment.

"The more the pressure, the more they crack under it," he said.

Schaeffer said that more cases of cheating have been reported in school districts around the country this academic year, though he said it is unclear if there have been more incidents or if school systems are getting better at uncovering them.

And as more states adopt reforms that tie teacher tenure, bonuses and evaluations to test scores, Schaeffer said, he anticipates that cheating will become more prevalent.

He said that deadlines imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act won't help. The act dictates that by 2013, all of the nation's students be able to pass federal and state standardized tests.

"The pressure on test scores right now for educators are unprecedented," he said. "It gets worse the closer we get to 2013."

But parents say they are hopeful that the students, staff and newly appointed principal at George Washington will relieve any pressure by continuing the progress they have made for the past few years. Grasmick has said that the school will keep its Blue Ribbon status.

Ranee Hoxter, who moved her second-grader from private school to George Washington last year, said she would only choose a Blue Ribbon school for her daughter's first public school experience.

And while she thinks it's unfortunate that school officials will be watching George Washington more closely at test time, Hoxter believes the students will be up to the challenge.

"I think what it's going to do is make them strive more to prove that the Blue Ribbon they have is rightfully theirs," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.