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Atlanta Journal-Constitution Investigation: New Allegations of `Suspect’ Test Scores at Blue Ribbon Schools

The latest installment in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s ongoing series examining suspicious test scores has cast a pall on the federal “Blue Ribbon Schools” program, which recognizes campuses that demonstrate dramatic improvement among at-risk students.

As part of its “Cheating Our Children” investigation, the AJC previously reported suspect test scores in public school districts across the country. The investigative team used open records requests to obtain student test data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The suspicious test score patterns — which alone is not evidence of cheating — were found in 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts. (Some researchers and educators have challenged the AJC’s methodology, arguing that it did not take into account mitigating factors such as student population changes in districts with high transiency rates.)

According to the AJC, “statistically improbable” test score gains were also found at dozens of schools nationwide which received the federal “Blue Ribbon” designation – the highest honor awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. The extreme gains in student achievement at some of the Blue Ribbon schools, typically occurring right before administrators applied for the award, would be statistically unlikely to occur without cheating, the AJC reported.

The Blue Ribbon award “affirms an article of faith for education reformers: that even chronically ailing schools can have miraculous recoveries,” wrote the AJC. But the newspaper’s investigation suggests “cheating has undermined the Blue Ribbon’s integrity while shortchanging students whose achievements have been overstated.”

One of the Blue Ribbon schools identified by the AJC as having suspect achievement is Highland Park Elementary in Silver Spring, Md. The school’s 2009 award was defended by Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr, who told the local NBC affiliate that “We do not accept anybody disparaging the hard work of our staff and our kids.”

Scott Steffan, the school’s current principal, told News4 that he was “completely appalled by the allegation that the school is cheating … there has never been one allegation, one accusation that there has been anything other than fantastic instruction going on here that has led to the results we’ve achieved.”

I asked the federal Education Department for its reaction to the AJC story on Blue Ribbon schools, and heard from spokesman Daren Briscoe.

While the Education Department takes seriously “credible allegations or actual evidence of cheating, the reputation of the more than 6,500 recipients who have received this coveted award since 1982 should not be tarnished without direct evidence,” Briscoe said in a written statement.

To become a Blue Ribbon school campuses must undergo extensive review and provide supporting documentation of student achievement gains over a five-year period, Briscoe said. If the documentation is “insufficient, questionable, or incomplete,” the application is sent back for further information or rejected outright.

“The implication of the AJC article – that dramatic school improvement is impossible, or that some students are too disadvantaged to make significant academic progress in a short time, is troubling. Students in disadvantaged communities don’t have to cheat in order to compete academically with their more privileged peers,” Briscoe said. “With the right leadership and instructional support, dramatic gains are possible, and those are the examples that the Blue Ribbon Schools program aims to celebrate.”

Just as sharp score increases alone don’t prove cheating, the lack of prior allegations of misconduct doesn’t mean the scores are valid, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for Fair Test, a nonprofit organization that advocates for appropriate use of standardized testing.

Schaeffer told me that a thorough investigation would include examining answer sheets for irregularities, such as patterns where the wrong answer was erased and replaced with the correct one. Independent investigators would also need to look at the individual students’ exam performance histories, and interview educators to find out how the tests were administered, Schaeffer said.

Winning the federal Blue Ribbon has more value than just adding a bright-blue banner to the campus flagpole. The honor can burnish an administrator’s resume, and some districts offer cash bonuses to campuses that are selected.

Coupled with the pressure to achieve is the pressure not to fail. No Child Left Behind requires schools make adequate yearly progress on standardized tests or face sanctions when results fall short. At the same time, the majority of states are in the process of overhauling teacher evaluation systems, and adding provisions that require student test scores to be a factor when considering teacher job performance.

Given those factors, “it’s not surprising that cheating cases have been confirmed in 34 states and the District of Columbia over just the past three academic years,” Schaeffer said.

When the stakes are this high “there are strong incentives for educators to boost results by hook or by crook,” Schaeffer said. “Most teachers, principals and administrators resist the temptation, but growing percentages say they feel pressure to cross the ethical line.”

Tomorrow: How are local districts responding to being singled out by the AJC investigation?



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