BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday referred an audit of what he called “a massive grade-fixing scheme in Baltimore City Public Schools” to the Maryland State Prosecutor and Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office for a criminal investigation and potential prosecution.

The Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education’s audit, released Tuesday, found more than 12,500 failing grades were changed to passing at Baltimore high schools during the 2016 through 2020 school years.

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“The report reveals a staggering level of disregard for the integrity of the educational system and a clear lack of accountability at the highest levels. For years, the school system has denied and dismissed allegations of grade fixing, and tried to sweep it all under the rug,” Hogan said. “None of this should be allowed to happen in any school system, let alone in one of the most highly funded large school systems in America. All involved in this culture of corruption must be held accountable.”

Investigators’ findings were based on a combination of documents, including emails exchanged by district and school staff, and interviews with educators and administrators, some of whom the auditors’ say were reluctant to speak out of fear that it could cost them their jobs.

“A culture of fear and a veil of secrecy affected the BCPS system and kept many from speaking freely about misconduct,” the report states. “Regrettably, these actions delayed the completion of this investigation and hindered the truth-seeking process.”

Patterson High School had the highest number of changed grades (1,390), followed by Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School (780) and Digital Harbor High (592) during the period under examination, according to the audit.

In a statement released Wednesday, the school system called the report “perplexing” and said the grade-changing incidents “occurred more than 3 years ago,” before many current seniors were in high school.

“Over 20 pages of the report, the OIGE notes the challenges of implementing changes to our policy, but it did not find a violation of the law or financial improprieties,” the district said. “The incidents cited largely occurred before the policy change in 2019 and did not illustrate systemwide pressure to change grades.”

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Inspector General Richard P. Henry recommended the Baltimore City School Board of Commissioners request the Maryland State Board of Education and State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury conduct an audit of the school system’s “efficiency and effectiveness” in handling grades.

But he went on to say the audit identifies “issues of concern that would not constitute a criminal violation of State law.”

In the case of Patterson High, staff told auditors that district administrators advised them “that no student should have a final numerical grade of a 58 or 59,” and that they were instructed to change those grades to a 60%, or a D-. As one BCPS manager put it, a student “should not be one point away” from passing, saying it was “common sense” to change grades for deserving students.

During the audit, the Inspector General’s Office reviewed emails, including one dated Feb. 18, 2018, that was sent to administrators. It reads: “Attached is a spreadsheet of the students that received a final grade of 58 and 59 by cohort. Infinite Campus does not automatically round these grades to a 60. In order to do so, please complete and sign the grade change form.”

Auditors determined that 34 of 57 students listed in the spreadsheet received grade changes that lifted their grades from failing to passing, the report states.

In interviews with investigators, school administrators, including CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises, denied knowing of any pressure put on principals to change grades. She said changing grades from failing to passing would not help principals as much as people think, since North Avenue uses multiple data points to measure a school’s success.

After returning to the school system in 2016, Santelises, who served as Chief Academic Officer from 2010 to 2013, said she launched a “full reset” of the system’s grading policy. In its statement, Baltimore City Public Schools said those changes, adopted in 2019, “ensure that our grading is fair, equitable, and accurately reflects our students’ achievements.”

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The school district said it welcomes an external review of grade changes made during the 2022-23 school year, “offering current data in a near-normal school environment.”

CBS Baltimore Staff