Cheating our children: Suspect scores put award’s integrity in question

Second in a series: Last month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an unprecedented investigation into test scores that found signs of potential cheating nationwide. Today, we examine schools that won the prestigious Blue Ribbon Award. These schools, the AJC found, were more than three times as likely as all schools to exhibit extreme score gains the year they applied for the honor.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Twelve miles from the White House, Highland Elementary epitomized the government’s aspirations for public schools. Highland, it seemed, was leaving no child behind.

In just three years, Highland had gone from the verge of a state takeover to reporting that virtually every student passed standardized reading exams. This would be impressive anywhere. Highland did it with huge proportions of students who lived in poverty and, perhaps more important, who came from homes where no one spoke English.

Taken at face value, this achievement earned Highland the government’s top educational honor: the National Blue Ribbon Schools Award. It also merited a visit from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who unfurled the award’s most prominent symbol: a royal-blue flag that fixed Highland among the nation’s most highly regarded schools.

MORE IN THE SERIES: Part one: Suspicious school test scores across the nation| Part three: Help on tests can cross the line | Part four: Cheating thrives, investigations languish | Part Five: States can't ensure test integrity

“This school, just four or five years ago, wasn’t a Blue Ribbon school,” Duncan said that morning in September 2009, according to video of the event. “It had the same type of children, same type of families, same type of community — but dramatically different results.” Now, he said, “this school has more students at the advanced level than any other school like it in the state. It’s absolutely remarkable.”

And remarkably unlikely.

Highland is one of dozens of schools that won Blue Ribbon awards in the past three years despite extreme test-score increases or other factors that suggest cheating, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

CHART: Blue Ribbon schools' performance

Winning a Blue Ribbon can boost the careers of superintendents, principals and teachers, and give schools permanent cachet: once a Blue Ribbon school, always a Blue Ribbon school. The award affirms an article of faith for education reformers: that even chronically ailing schools can have miraculous recoveries.

But, the newspaper’s investigation suggests, cheating has undermined the Blue Ribbon’s integrity while shortchanging students whose achievements have been overstated.

The AJC examined Blue Ribbon winners as part of a nationwide analysis of test scores. In an article last month, the newspaper identified nearly 200 school districts where test-score changes reflected a pattern that, in Atlanta, pointed to widespread cheating by teachers and principals.

The full analysis of 69,000 public schools showed that Atlanta’s cheating was no fluke. The examination of 605 recent Blue Ribbon winners suggests that test manipulation may be even more prevalent among schools considered models for others to emulate.

Statistically improbable test scores spiked at dozens of schools in the year they applied for the award, the analysis found. In that year, suspicious gains occurred about three times more often in Blue Ribbon winners than at all schools nationwide.

Among all Blue Ribbon schools with suspicious scores, the analysis identified 27, including Highland Elementary, that had the most unlikely gains. In some grades and subjects, the odds against increases occurring without an intervention such as tampering were so high as to be virtually impossible.

No statistical analysis alone can prove that anyone cheated. But in data and documents and in interviews with school officials and testing experts, few other credible explanations surfaced for how the scores of so many students could shift so quickly to such odds-defying degrees.

“Those kinds of changes are just incomprehensible,” said Jaxk Reeves, director of the University of Georgia Statistical Consulting Center. Reeves was one of the academic experts who reviewed the AJC’s analysis.

Another researcher who advised the newspaper, James Wollack, director of testing and evaluation services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said many schools credit their instructional strategies for overnight success. But no changes in teaching methods, he said, are enough to account for “ridiculous, nonsensical gains.”

“More often than not,” Wollack said, “something other than student learning was causing those gains.”

Federal officials say they closely review each school’s application. The Department of Education, however, solicits schools that give the appearance of overcoming economic and demographic obstacles to coax students into doing their best — schools that the department says “beat the odds.”

That focus on dramatic turnarounds underscores how the Blue Ribbon award has come to represent a core tenet in the education reform movement: that bold changes in how schools operate can make a greater difference than the circumstances children experience outside school, such as living in poverty. The apparent successes of schools like Highland, no matter how unlikely, bolster arguments for radically changing the way teachers are hired, fired and compensated.

Without a doubt, Highland offered a powerful narrative of transformation.

It was failing, badly, and was in danger of becoming the first school in Montgomery County, an affluent, high-achieving suburb of Washington, D.C., to be taken over by the state. The superintendent of schools lured a highly regarded principal out of retirement to take one last shot at saving the school. The new principal focused on reading and math, the subjects tested to determine whether a school meets federal standards known as “adequate yearly progress.” Over three years, average scores jumped as much as 78 percentage points.

This narrative began to fall apart in the years following Highland’s Blue Ribbon designation. Some test scores dropped almost as sharply as they had risen. Last year, for the first time since 2005, Highland failed to make AYP.

Teachers and administrators at Highland deny tampering with tests. The Montgomery County school district said it has never received reports of cheating at Highland.

At several other Blue Ribbon schools in recent years, independent investigations have linked higher scores to cheating. In New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the District of Columbia, suspicious erasures and corrections on answer sheets implicated at least five Blue Ribbon schools. In Atlanta, state investigators concluded last year that four of the district’s five most recent Blue Ribbon winners cheated on the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2009.

All four, though, kept their Blue Ribbon flags.

‘Self-promotion’ rewarded

The Blue Ribbon program was born of a need for good public relations.

In the early 1980s, a presidential commission was preparing an eviscerating critique of American education titled “A Nation at Risk.” The report would lament a culture of mediocrity that fostered poor teaching and learning. So, before the report’s release, federal officials looked for ways to call attention to successful schools. The Department of Education announced the first Blue Ribbon awards in the fall of 1982.

Three decades and 6,000 awards later, the program holds both prestige and political appeal. Winners boast of their Blue Ribbons 10 or 20 years after the fact, and elected officials bask in the schools’ reflected glory. Members of Congress often announce awards for schools in their districts. Winning principals attend a ceremony in Washington that resembles an educator’s version of the Academy Awards. At the 2010 event, Duncan strode to the dais accompanied by the theme from “Rocky,” and winners celebrated so exuberantly in 2011 that the Department of Education produced a video titled “The Dancing Educators.”

Originally, only schools that were longtime top performers could win the award. In the No Child Left Behind era, though, a school can qualify if 40 percent of its students come from poor families and test scores are among the fastest-rising in its state. The program’s critics say federal officials rely too heavily on information that originates from the schools.

“I would not just take their word for it,” said Tom Loveless, who began studying the Blue Ribbon program more than a decade ago at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. “It tends to reward self-promotion.”

The Department of Education says it expects states to verify test scores before endorsing schools’ applications.

“If there is a significant jump in the improvement level, we check in the school’s application to see if they have supporting documentation,” Aba Kumi, director of the Blue Ribbon program, said in an interview. “If it’s questionable, we go back to the state to verify the data. If the state affirms, or stands behind the school’s scores, we accept their judgment. If it’s a little too good to be true and they don’t have sufficient information ... we have to return the nomination back to the state.”

Such cases, she said, are rare.

But the AJC’s review of dozens of Blue Ribbon applications suggests many warrant more scrutiny. Some cite phenomenal growth in test scores or a new principal who turned a school around. Others relate an instructional innovation that produced miraculous results or an array of educational aphorisms presented as the keys to a school’s success.

Granville T. Woods Elementary School in Brooklyn, N.Y., also known as Public School 335, boasted about the “scaffolding” process it uses to train teachers, along with “articulation sessions [that] deepen understanding and pedagogy.”

This is how the school explained its improvement: “We understand that it takes ‘a whole village’ to raise a child. ... Our mission is to build lifelong learners! Children first!”

The percentage of students passing state tests almost doubled in three years, and the proportion hitting advanced levels increased even more. In 2008, 15 percent of Granville T. Woods’ fourth-graders posted advanced scores. In 2009, 81 percent hit that mark.

The odds that, by chance alone, the school’s fourth-graders could have raised their math scores so much: one in 30 million.

Nevertheless, the Department of Education gave the school a Blue Ribbon in 2010.

After the AJC inquired about the school last week, education officials in New York discovered an anonymous website post alleging test-tampering at the school. They are referring the case to the New York City School District’s special commissioner of investigation.

“A test-score jump alone isn’t evidence of cheating,” said Matt Mittenthal, the district’s press secretary, “but any time we see an allegation, we refer it to an investigator.”

Another 2010 winner, the H.S. Thompson Learning Center, a Dallas elementary school, had an unusually unsettled academic history. In 2006, Texas education officials declared the school “academically unacceptable” because of low test scores. The same year, it was one of several Dallas schools with “anomalous results” on state tests that prompted an investigation, said Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the Dallas school district. No evidence of wrongdoing emerged, Dahlander said, but teachers were no longer allowed to monitor their own classrooms during standardized testing.

By 2009, with every student meeting standards, the state had classified Thompson as “exemplary.”

Thompson’s Blue Ribbon application related a classic worst-to-best scenario: “Nestled between two now-demolished housing projects and a railroad track, excellence is achieved where most have declared it cannot happen. ... This is the story of a ‘Lighthouse for Learning.’”

The school serves one of Dallas’ poorest neighborhoods. Ninety-nine percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Nearly half of students moved in or out each year. The school gave supplies and uniforms to many students, even washed and dried their clothes when necessary.

Despite its obstacles, H.S. Thompson posted massive score increases as it sought Blue Ribbon recognition. The problem is, research on standardized testing suggests those gains would be almost impossible for any group of children to achieve, under any circumstances.

The odds for increases on the school’s fifth-grade reading exam in 2009: one in 768,000.

For fifth-grade math: one in 6 million.

Rise and fall

On a cold, rainy morning in late February, a single-file line of perfectly quiet children passed the banner draped from the ceiling of Highland Elementary’s lobby in Silver Spring. None seemed to pay attention to the Blue Ribbon flag. But to principal Scott Steffan, that does nothing to diminish its symbolic power.

“This school is the cornerstone of this community,” said Steffan, a second-year principal who has worked at Highland nine years. “To be recognized with such a prominent award — I don’t know how to put into words what that means.”

Highland is one of the few bright spots in a dismal neighborhood surrounded by affluent suburbs. Most families sending children to Highland are recent immigrants. Many live in what Steffan described as “abject poverty.” School social workers returned in tears after visiting a student home where an entire family occupied one room in a basement with no furniture except a single mattress.

At least 90 percent of kindergarten students started school last fall speaking no English.

“They have literally no life skills,” Steffan said. “We have had students who didn’t know what a color was, who didn’t know what a number was, who had never seen a book.”

Such an environment presents obvious challenges.

“How do you teach a kid who comes to your class hungry when you as a person never had to deal with that growing up?” said Brian Freiss, who has taught at Highland for 11 years and is Montgomery County’s teacher of the year for 2012.

For many years, test scores indicated, Highland simply wasn’t educating many of its students.

Scores were so low that Maryland education officials gave Montgomery County an ultimatum: Bring up Highland’s scores in 2005, or give up control of the school.

Highland made AYP that spring, but just barely. Maryland kept the school on “corrective action status,” meaning it remained a strong candidate for a state takeover.

“We knew we were good at our jobs, that we had a lot of good people in this building,” counselor Courtney Thompson said at Highland one recent day. “But we were struggling with how to get results. It was unsettling.”

Two people know more than anyone else about what happened at Highland beginning in 2005: Jerry Weast, then Montgomery County’s superintendent of schools, and Ray Myrtle, who became the school’s principal that fall. Their turnaround efforts at Highland became the subject of a 2009 case study by the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University.

The idea that the state might take over Highland — or any other Montgomery County school — was “unacceptable,” researchers Stacey Childress and Andrew Goldin wrote. Weast, they said, recruited Myrtle, who had retired as principal of a high-performing elementary school in a wealthy section of Montgomery County.

“I simply couldn’t take no for an answer,” Weast told the researchers. “We told Ray that this would be the crowning achievement of a fantastic career. He had already taken one school to the top of the achievement mountain and we knew that he could do it again with a school in a very challenging situation.”

Myrtle emphasized reading and math, used data to diagnose students’ weaknesses, clamped down on students’ behavior. And he pushed out teachers who weren’t on board with his approach.

“One teacher who eventually left did not want me in his classroom and could not believe I continued to show up and question him,” Myrtle said in the case study. “His defense was that, though his students weren’t performing very well, he was kind to them. It’s true, he was very nice. But whatever learning was going on was happening in spite of his kindness.”

In 2006, Myrtle’s first year as principal, 16 percent of Highland’s fifth-graders scored at the advanced level on the Maryland reading exam. The next year, 24 percent got advanced scores. In 2008, that number shot up to 80 percent, then to 94 percent in 2009 before slipping to 86 percent in 2010.

Myrtle was hailed as a miracle worker.

Weast praised him in testimony to a congressional committee. The Department of Education honored him as one of the top eight principals in the nation. Highland’s faculty, in the Blue Ribbon application, likened him to “one of Maryland’s favorite sons”: Cal Ripken Jr., the longtime Baltimore Oriole and member of baseball’s Hall of Fame.

But then, in the first full school year after the Blue Ribbon award, just 42 percent of Highland’s fifth-graders scored in the advanced range — a drop of more than half in one year. Other grades recorded similar declines.

A graph of Highland’s scores would take on a peculiar appearance: an inverted ‘U.’

‘Incredible’

Myrtle retired from Highland in 2010, then became a consultant at the American Institutes of Research, a nonprofit in Washington. He answers his office telephone as if he were still an elementary school principal: “Mr. Myrtle.”

In an interview, Myrtle said Highland was “the worst mess I have ever seen.” But “in that first year, things turned around so fast under a new regime.”

He credited the “wonderful work ethic” of immigrant students, more teacher training, and plenty of money for innovations such as special teachers who gave intensive, personalized instruction. Budget cuts, he said, contributed to declining scores after Highland won the Blue Ribbon.

“You cannot educate this population without a lot of extra resources,” Myrtle said. “When you’ve got money and you’ve got a plan, you can do things. People have.”

Cheating, he said, had nothing to do with higher scores.

“I never had any suspicions,” Myrtle said. “I knew our data, and I knew our students.”

Teachers at Highland said no one asked them to cheat. They cannot imagine their school being caught up in a scandal like the one that unfolded in Atlanta.

“I’m appalled by it,” Freiss, the Montgomery County teacher of the year, said of the Atlanta case. “It’s like a total hit to the profession.”

“It’s so sad,” added Natalie Hambrecht, a staff development teacher. “What model are you setting for that child? Who knows what will happen to these students?”

Highland’s teachers said test scores don’t matter enough to inspire cheating. But they acknowledged that the Blue Ribbon award — based so much on test scores — brought what math coach Shannon Dorsey called “a huge sense of pride and accomplishment.”

That feeling peaked Sept. 26, 2009. Duncan made the short drive to Silver Spring, where a colorful hand-drawn “Highland” banner stretched across the auditorium stage. The school chorus sang for an audience of local, state and federal officials:

“I’ve got a little bit of hope,

“But my back’s against the ropes. ...”

Then, to prolonged applause from students seated on the auditorium floor, Duncan brought out the Blue Ribbon flag.

Highland’s transformation, Duncan said, “was not some miracle,” and other speakers praised the school’s “incredible” test scores. No one mentioned how truly incredible they were. Instead, the way Highland won the award became an example for others.

“Students around the country,” Duncan said, “can have this kind of success.”

-- Staff writer M.B. Pell contributed to this article.

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