Cheating, tampering found in city schools

Widespread cheating on state assessment tests has been uncovered at two Baltimore elementary schools, state and district officials are expected to announce today.

Investigators with the state Department of Education found that Maryland School Assessment scores were compromised at Abbottston Elementary in 2009 and at Fort Worthington Elementary in 2009 and 2010, according to city schools CEO Andrés Alonso.

The disclosure marks the second time in little more than a year that city school officials have had to acknowledge cheating at schools recognized nationally as models of successful urban education, including one visited by the first lady and the other by the U.S. secretary of education.

In interviews Wednesday with The Baltimore Sun, Alonso and state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said they will release details of an 18-month investigation that found tampering with test booklets and an unusually high number of erasure marks, with answers changed from wrong to right.

At Fort Worthington, incomplete test booklets were found to have been completed after a day's testing had ended. The investigation also found that attendance records were altered in 2010 to show that more students had come to the school in the days leading up to testing.

In addition to requiring students of various racial groups and special education students to meet annual progress goals in math and science, the federal No Child Left Behind Act factors in attendance to determine whether a school has made adequate yearly progress.

Alonso and Grasmick said they do not believe the incidents are indicative of widespread cheating in Baltimore.

Still, Alonso said in an interview that the cheating is "personal" because it undermines the system's progress. Just over a year ago, he confirmed a cheating incident on state tests at another city school, George Washington Elementary, and the new disclosures come as a deadline to renew his contract looms June 30.

"Like I've said before, I believe the overwhelming number of people in the school system are doing the right thing, and the unethical people are going to do unethical things," Alonso said. "I'm not playing games, and clearly I don't care about the implications on my job. It's about the kids and making the school system better."

Grasmick said she applauded Alonso "for his absolute insistence on the integrity of the assessment program."

"If one is not open about [these results] it brings suspicion to all the results," Grasmick said, adding that not making the results public would be damaging to the city schools. "It also would mask our ability to bring legitimate assistance to schools that need help."

Grasmick said the CEO's public acknowledgment of the cheating should not be taken as a sign of its pervasiveness in city schools. Alonso has said that he refers about 10 to 15 schools for investigation by the state every year. At least two more schools that were referred last year are still being investigated, he said.

State officials have said that the overwhelming majority of testing investigations handled by the state involve mishandling of tests — such as leaving them in unlocked rooms — and not cheating.

But at Abbottston and Fort Worthington, the state investigation found clear, statistical evidence that staff members engaged in test tampering. Grasmick said the principals who led the two schools at the time the cheating occurred could face the loss of their teaching licenses — though the officials did not attribute specific acts to the principals.

Alonso said that because of personnel protocols, he could not discuss the principals at Abbottston and Fort Worthington, or whether they face sanctions. But he said he "has established a record" about who should be held accountable for such egregious cheating.

In May 2010, Alonso requested that Grasmick revoke the teaching license of Susan Burgess, the former principal of George Washington Elementary, after the state found thousands of erasure marks in the 2008 Maryland School Assessment test booklets. Grasmick granted Alonso's request.

The school, which holds a prestigious Blue Ribbon designation, was visited in 2008 by then-first lady Laura Bush, who praised it for its accomplishments.

In an interview, Burgess denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the cheating. But Alonso said that given the extent of the tampering, Burgess should have known about it.

"We have set a record that is systematic, when we determine the person who should have known," Alonso said. "And we will take every possible personnel action to hold them accountable. That is going to be consistent not only across roles, but across schools."

School officials confirmed that the principals during the time the state said cheating occurred were Angela Faltz at Abbottston and Shaylin Todd at Fort Worthington. However, the two principals did not lead the schools this past year.

Faltz led Abbottston for 11 years; Todd led Fort Worthington for four years, according to district officials.

Attempts to reach Faltz and Todd for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrator's union, declined to comment on the state reports of cheating. "At the advice of the union's attorneys, me and Dr. Alonso are working diligently to ensure that all individuals accused of being involved in this situation are treated fairly," Gittings said.

According to reports to be released today by Alonso and Grasmick, the investigation of Abbottston started with a complaint in the winter of 2010, shortly before the administration of the MSA tests.

The school system then asked the state to investigate the school's 2009 test booklets and sent extra monitors to Abbottston in Northeast Baltimore and to other schools that had seen large gains in the previous year.

"With the increased monitoring, the outcomes went down catastrophically," Alonso said.

State officials told The Sun in July that they were investigating Abbottston after the school's test scores plummeted — in some cases by more than 50 percent — from 100 percent pass rates in 2009. Abbottston's progress was so highly regarded that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited in 2009 to celebrate the students' achievement and praised the school as a model for the country.

The state then reviewed 7,000 questions and 485 test booklets from 2009, and found a pattern of incorrect answers being changed to correct ones. Alonso said the erasure analysis was similar to George Washington's, which had noted thousands of changed answers.

Last year, Faltz responded in writing to an inquiry by school officials about the test scores. She said it was "alarming to all of us that our student achievement levels have recently declined," according to a memo attained by The Baltimore Sun. "Without consultation with my leadership team and teachers, it is difficult to detail the root causes of the current student achievement data."

She went on to suggest that the "assignment of two new teachers to the critical tested grades may have been a factor" and that the "instructional supports provided to teachers did not yield the desired results."

The investigation into Fort Worthington was also spurred by complaints during the 2010 MSA testing period, officials said.

District officials met with the leadership team at the East Baltimore school and began looking into prior test results and interviewing staff and students. The district then zeroed in on attendance at the school and the 2010 test results of a select group of third-grade students. City school officials then requested that state investigators pull the test booklets of several third-graders.

"What emerged very quickly was that there were serious testing improprieties," Alonso said.

The investigation determined that students' incomplete test booklets had been completed after-hours on the first day of testing and before testing began on the second day.

Since 2008, Fort Worthington's overall test scores have remained steady, with 80 percent to 90 percent proficiency rates. In 2007, scores were significantly lower.

For example, in 2007, 55 percent of students in third grade were scoring proficient or above in reading; in 2008, that number rose to 81 percent. In 2007, 46 percent of third-graders were scoring proficient or advanced in math; in 2008, that rose to 91 percent.

The attendance analysis revealed more problems. Alonso said attendance is captured on a certain date for determining a school's adequate yearly progress. In the days leading up to the 2010 attendance date, the district uncovered a large number of changes to students' attendance records.

"Everything matters and everything counts," Alonso said.

He said the district audits attendance regularly, particularly when complaints arise.

"Because of the huge pressure of accountability, people who worry about their jobs will sacrifice the kids," he said. "Kids should not be pawns.

"Our kids can learn — the results show that over time. So, they're not cheating the system. They're cheating the kids."

This spring, the city ramped up its testing security, spending nearly $400,000 to hire and place 157 testing monitors throughout the district during the 2011 MSA testing.

"Do I expect other schools will be investigated? Of course," Alonso said. "But we have taken a systematic approach to stop [cheating]. This year, we made it extraordinarily difficult."

In a video sent out to school system employees before the MSA tests were administered in March, Alonso warned that, "if there is anybody — anybody who is thinking about any irregularity, I need you to understand that your entire professional livelihood is on the line."

"The consequences are dire," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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