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School system says state found allegation of improper help unsubstantiated

(Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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School officials in suburban Maryland on Wednesday pushed back on a teacher’s allegations of improper assistance on projects required for graduation, saying state investigators had found a claim of cheating to be unsubstantiated.

Montgomery County school officials said educators provided help to one student on a “bridge project” — done to qualify for a diploma when students do not pass state-required exams — but that the state found the assistance was permitted and appropriate.

The school system’s comments came in a written statement sent countywide following a Washington Post article about a teacher’s allegation that inappropriate help was given to students working on bridge projects in government at Richard Montgomery High School.

Montgomery County school officials did not comment for The Post’s original story, published online Monday, saying they would wait until a state investigation of the matter was concluded in coming weeks. On Wednesday, they shifted course, saying they had received information from the state.

“People were beginning to ask questions, and rightfully so, and we wanted to correct the record as soon as possible with the information that we had,” school system spokesman Derek Turner said. “We take concerns about cheating very seriously.”

Samantha Foley, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Department of Education, did not address Montgomery County’s statements about the state investigation but said in an email that the review continues.

The department takes “all allegations of testing irregularity seriously,” she said.

The incident at issue dates to last spring, when Brian Donlon, a social studies teacher at Richard Montgomery High, said he noticed that a small group of students working on projects were using worksheets, called graphic organizers, that had been filled out in advance.

He said he considered it cheating, even if students weren’t being given the full answers, calling the material “a highly improper level of assistance.”

Maryland investigates claim of inappropriate help on diploma-related projects

School officials in Montgomery County said Wednesday that only one student received help, an English-language learner, and that the state had determined that the filled-in sheet was allowable under “reteaching protocols” for English-language learners.

The county school officials said another student was serving as an aide for the student doing the project — an arrangement they said the state found appropriate but said should have involved a teacher, not a student.

They said state officials identified areas for improving training on administering bridge projects.

“We are committed to ensuring that teaching and learning, and assessments related to learning, continue to be done with the highest level of integrity,” the county school officials said in their statement.

State officials also found that Donlon failed to protect student privacy while bringing attention to the issue, according to the school system. Richard Montgomery promptly investigated his allegations, according to information the school system said it received from the state.

Donlon said Wednesday that he stood by his account, which he brought to the attention of school system and state officials before presenting it to the Maryland State Board of Education at its Dec. 3 meeting.

He said he consulted state procedures and spoke with several other educators before coming forward. Each educator was “deeply troubled” by the level of assistance provided, he said.

Donlon said he has two children in the school system, and “I count on the staff of their schools to report any unethical conduct. I believe my actions are consistent to that standard.”

Maryland State Board of Education members have raised concerns in recent years about bridge projects, which the state describes as an alternative pathway for students with disabilities, English-language learners and those who have trouble with testing.

Update: The Montgomery County Public Schools, after earlier declining comment, issued a response Wednesday to the allegations about the bridge program.

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