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Churchill High grade scheme may involve half-dozen students

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By Michael Birnbaum and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

About a half-dozen students appear to be at the center of a grade-changing incident at Churchill High School, and officials are trying to determine each one's responsibility in the scheme to hack into the grading system, a Montgomery County schools spokesman said Friday.

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"It appears we have about a half-dozen students who knew what was going on, and we're trying to determine the levels of their involvement," schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.

Tofig said school officials think software that tracks keystrokes was put on teachers' computers via a plug-in USB device to obtain the passwords used to access the online grading system. He said it is possible that passwords belonged to administrators, who have wider access.

Grades given by three teachers appeared to have been altered, he said. According to a source familiar with the situation, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, grades were changed for at least 30 students.

The incident has prompted questions about the security of student information at the high-performing high school in Potomac. Educators pointed Friday to data breaches at schools across the country, including at least one alleged 2007 incident of grade-hacking in Montgomery County.

The computer system records each instance when grades are changed. Teachers at the school have access only to their own grades, not those of others.

Tofig said that the vulnerability extended countywide, and that computer security levels at all schools were being changed to more strictly regulate the use of USB devices. But he said that as yet no other schools suspected that their grading systems had been breached.

At Churchill, criminal charges are a "possibility," though it is too early to predict whether they would be pressed, Tofig said. A police officer posted at the school is assisting in interviews of the suspected hackers, said Lucille Baur, a police spokeswoman.

On Friday, school officials were also interviewing other students whose grades might have been changed, Tofig said. Teachers were told to check grades for anomalies and correct them before first semester report cards are released Wednesday, he said.

The 2,100-student school has a 98 percent graduation rate, 11 points higher than Montgomery as a whole. Its average SAT scores were 1820 of a possible 2400 in the 2008-09 school year, the second-highest in the county.

Some students wondered how college admissions officers would consider the high school in light of the incident. Colleges said that they were familiar with such situations.

Daniel G. Creasy, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University, said each year he hears about students hacking into grade databases. Students directly involved with such crimes are required to notify the schools where they have applied.

"Unfortunately, every year we receive such updates from applicants who have had minor to very serious disciplinary infractions in their senior years, and we evaluate each situation on an individual basis," Creasy wrote in an e-mail.

Students who were not involved need not worry, he said. "An applicant is judged on their own merit, not on . . . whether a school has a strong computer security system," he said.

At an emergency meeting Wednesday morning, Churchill Principal Joan C. Benz informed teachers and staff members that some students obtained access to the grading system and modified grades, according to three sources familiar with the meeting, two of whom were present.

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