Officials can't prove who changed Md. high-schoolers' grades

In a public meeting with parents, officials at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac sought to ease parents' concerns over a student grade-changing scheme led by at least eight students last January.
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A grade-changing scheme at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac involved the gradebooks of 35 teachers and was primarily isolated to the junior class, school officials told several hundred parents at a public meeting Monday night.

Police and school officials have been investigating the security breach in which at least eight students stole teachers' computer passwords using USB key loggers, which can be purchased inexpensively online. It wasn't until one teacher noticed three suspicious grades in late January that anyone knew students had been logging in and changing grades for several months, said Principal Joan C. Benz.

The grades of 54 students were changed, but the school system is unable to prove who changed those grades. The grades of 46 of the students were changed back, rather than lowered, as is done when a student is caught cheating, Benz said.

"There is no way in that computer system to determine who changed that grade," she said. All grades for this academic year have since been verified, she said.

Benz said there is no indication that money was involved with the grade changing.

None of the eight students accused of leading the scheme are currently attending classes, Benz said. Three left the school system before they could be disciplined.

Many of the questions that parents asked during the meeting were about how the scandal could taint the school's reputation or how hurt the ability of other students to get into college.

Churchill routinely ranks high among elite schools in the region and nation. The school has a 98 percent graduation rate, 11 points higher than the county average, and 99 percent of its graduates continue on to college. Churchill's average SAT scores were the second highest in the county for the 2008-09 school year.

Dave and Claudia Williams said the only reason they came to the meeting was to learn about how the grade-changing incident might affect their son Chase's college search.

The grades of Chase, a junior, were not changed, the couple said.

"I'm just surprised that it took this long" for teachers to notice grade changes, Dave Williams said. "I'm surprised there were not more" students involved.

Benz said the school has received direct questions about the situation from University of Maryland officials but has no plans to issue a letter to colleges because that would be a "red flag" and is "absolutely unnecessary," Benz said.

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