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."