Parents Support Teachers in Maryland Test Scandal

Published October 1, 2001

School officials in Montgomery County, Maryland are hoping this current school year turns out better than the last one, when comments from two students at a low-scoring middle school led to the unearthing of the district’s second major cheating scandal in two years.

After a school test coordinator shared an advance copy of a standardized test, questions from the exam were given to some students in class or as homework. But when the county superintendent punished the teachers and administrators involved, parents were outraged at the superintendent, not the teachers and administrators.

When the two sixth-grade students at Silver Spring International Middle School (SSI) in Silver Spring, Maryland recognized questions on the test, they reported their concerns to the test proctor, triggering a probe by county school officials. After a two-month preliminary investigation, Superintendent Jerry Weast announced the suspension of five SSI teachers and two SSI administrators.

Pending appeals, the principal at SSI was demoted and reassigned, while the assistant principal faces dismissal and revocation of his teaching certificate. The math team leader is slated for dismissal and loss of her teaching certificate for five years; two other teachers face suspension for a year without pay, with their teaching certificates suspended for one year as well; the two other teachers were subsequently reinstated and escaped with letters of reprimand.

Students and taxpayers were penalized, too. The scores of 303 sixth-graders who took the standardized test had to be thrown out and the school system was required to pay the test’s publisher $424,275 to reimburse the cost of preparing new exam booklets and other supporting materials.

Parents were outraged, but apparently unwilling to hold SSI staff accountable for their actions. In fact, the reaction of many parents was to support SSI teachers and administrators and to vent their criticism against the superintendent and school system. They held candlelight vigils in honor of the teachers, staged protest rallies, and held press conferences for the local media.

What Happened?

Located adjacent to Washington, DC, Montgomery County, Maryland is the nation’s 19th largest school system. It has a $1.2 billion budget, 189 schools, 18,000 employees, and nearly 135,000 pupils. Silver Spring International Middle School is a relatively new school in an expanding part of the county. Last year, it enrolled 884 students–35 percent Hispanic, 29 percent African-American, and 28 percent Caucasian.

Like other public education systems, Montgomery County began instituting standardized testing in recent years. One of the tests it uses is the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). The CTBS is a national test that seeks to measure the reading and mathematical abilities of students in the second, fourth, and sixth grades. It was introduced in Maryland about 10 years ago.

Last year’s first cheating scandal involved an elementary school principal in the exclusive suburb of Potomac, Maryland, who resigned in the wake of allegations she coached students on another statewide assessment test, provided them with answers, and even gave them extra time to correct wrong choices. The second incident was at the Silver Spring middle school.

Low Math Scores

On the 1999-2000 CTBS tests, SSI’s math scores were some of the lowest in the county, according to the Montgomery Journal. All but four of the county’s other public schools beat SSI on math, with SSI students tying for the second-lowest math score. SSI students had the lowest score in the county on the math computation test.

According to the Montgomery County School system’s investigation, SSI Assistant Principal and test coordinator Jerome DeMarchi gave an advance copy of the CTBS math test booklet to Math Department Head Amy Land about a month before the 2000-2001 test, scheduled for March 15.

In an interview with the Montgomery Journal, Land, 29, confirmed DeMarchi gave her the booklet and told her “to take a look at it.” The school system maintains Land was not authorized to have the test in advance.

Although Land and DeMarchi had signed non-disclosure agreements that barred copying the exam, Land assumed she had been given the CTBS booklet to help math teachers make sure their students were properly prepared for the upcoming exam. In February, she made eight copies and called a meeting to distribute them to the SSI math team–Toby Bastas, Cecilia Taylor, and Stephanie Zoz–as well as to other teachers. About a week after the meeting, Taylor gave a copy of the test to teacher Michael Essel, a 31 year-old former business major who was not present at the meeting.

“‘Do not show this to children. This is for your information,'” Land said she told the teachers at the meeting, according to her interview with the Journal. She told them it was the upcoming CTBS test, that “it was not to get to the kids,” and that they were “to keep it locked and secure.”

Not at Meeting

Bastas, 26, followed Land’s advice, telling the Journal she scanned the material to make sure her students knew it, and then kept it in a locked drawer. But Essel told the Journal his copy of the test contained nothing to identify it as the CTBS exam. As a result, he used it like any other information packet and “reviewed questions with his students in class . . . and copied a sheet of word problems and gave them as homework.”

On the day of the exam, two sixth-graders told the test proctor, Bastas, they recognized the test questions. In a letter she wrote to the school system, Bastas said she went to Land, and then she and Land asked the students’ math teacher, Essel, if he had given out the booklet’s questions to students in advance. In his Journal interview, Essel said he had, but that was the first he knew the booklet was the actual test.

Although SSI Principal Renee Brimfield said she informed the district’s testing office as soon as she learned of the incident, the report prepared by the district after its investigation stated she “failed to investigate and document the testing violations in a timely and responsive manner and tried to minimize staff involvement in the violations.”

“It was not the principal’s responsibility to investigate or document the testing violations,” countered Brimfield in a letter to the school’s PTA. “I was not authorized to collect evidence or to question the involved parties.”

Unexpected Reaction

When the events became public and the school district suspended the SSI administrators and teachers, most parents joined the teacher union in condemning the district. Comments were made about “an overreaction” and concerns were raised about the negative impact of students losing their math teachers late in the year.

“You don’t punish people for making a mistake,” said one parent. This is “a colossal judgement error,” chimed in an SSI PTA officer. In a letter to The Washington Post, a parent of a seventh-grader took the school system to task for removing staff without a “fair hearing” and punishing those who came forward and reported the violations. “The response . . . has been all wrong,” she said.

There was also wide support for Brimfield, who, according to one parent, was “the heart and soul of the school.” Either ignoring or ignorant of SSI’s abysmal performance on the previous year’s math tests, the same parent praised the principal for overseeing “a solid instructional program.”

The parents “want to erase from memory everything that happened,” commented one county school board member.

The pressure from parents resulted in the reinstatement of Bastas and Zoz with only letters of reprimand going into their files. When the two teachers returned to SSI on June 4, they were greeted with a huge welcome rally. The other punishments are being appealed and are expected to be heard in September.

Neal Lavon is a writer living in Takoma Park, Maryland. His email address is [email protected].