Learning Curve: A miracle or mirage?

In response to an AJC query into miraculous gains in her school’s scores on state tests, Capitol View Elementary Principal Arlene Snowden had a great answer:

“We accept no excuses from our children.”

The Atlanta community shouldn’t accept any excuses from Superintendent Beverly Hall, either.

But that’s what Atlantans have been getting since an AJC investigation last year on cheating on the state Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests led to state sanction of four schools, including one in Atlanta.

Now, a follow-up AJC investigation raises fresh questions about other APS test scores.

AJC reporters Heather Vogell and data analyst John Perry dug deeper into the data and identified 19 schools statewide that experienced dramatic drops and gains in test scores between spring last year and this year.

Twelve of those were in the Atlanta system, accounting for more than one in five of the district’s elementary schools.

These troubling findings should not be brushed off by Hall as a witch hunt.

At stake is not only her reputation, but that of the entire district, a district that she has worked diligently to advance over the last 10 years.

The AJC reporters found that students at Atlanta’s West Manor and Peyton Forest elementaries went from among the bottom performers statewide to among the best over the course of one year. The odds of making such a leap in learning were less than 1 in a billion.

In May, state school Superintendent Kathy Cox celebrated Peyton as a hard-working school with a “no-excuses attitude.”

“By the way, they’re knocking the socks off with the test scores,” Cox said. “Just a shining star.”

And the scores were bright. Perhaps even blinding.

According to the AJC investigation, math results in the third grade last year were among the lowest in the state.

However, Peyton fourth-graders shot up to the very top this year, placing fourth out of nearly 1,200 schools statewide in fourth-grade math.

“It’s very hard to explain these huge gains,” said Tom Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and testing expert who reviewed the newspaper’s findings. “You have to wonder: Is this the greatest school in the world?”

Hall’s efforts have earned her national acclaim as a visionary and data-driven reformer. She’s shaken a lethargic system out of its malaise and forced teachers and principals to work harder and smarter. She has demanded excellence from her schools and has chased many laggards out of the system.

But Hall has to consider that her insistence on higher performance might have led some of her staff to bend the rules.

What ought to concern her is the plummet in scores that occurred from one year to the next in some schools. Such a sharp downturn in performance suggests that the proficiency students developed in third grade somehow evaporated by fourth grade.

That points to two possibilities of fraud. The first is unconscious fraud committed by teachers so anxious for their students to succeed that they taught only to the test. Their students mastered test answers but little else and left the classroom without any context for the material or critical thinking abilities.

The second and more troubling scenario is deliberate cheating in which a teacher or administrator went behind students and changed answers.

A probe under way by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement should show whether the answer sheets had striking numbers of erasures from wrong to right or unusual patterns of answers.

It was a review of answer sheets earlier this year that led the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement to conclude that someone erased incorrect answers and penciled in correct responses at Atherton in DeKalb County, Parklane Elementary in Fulton, Deerwood Academy in Atlanta and Burroughs-Molette Elementary in Glynn. In July, the state Board of Education threw out the results of tests taken by more than 100 fifth-graders at the four schools.

If Hall believes that her schools did work miracles — I’m all for miracles wherever we can find them — then open her schools and records to outside scrutiny. Sit down with the testing experts cited in the AJC report and see what they have to say. Gather her principals for a heart-to-heart. Bring in objective test monitors for the next round of high-stakes testing.

Certainly, the rebuttal argument that APS has such small class sizes that even a slight enrollment shift could affect scores is valid and ought to be explored by the state.

And the contention by some principals that improved test scores owe to poor teaching in third grade and stellar teaching in fourth also ought to be considered.

If teacher quality can be credited for such statistically startling leaps in APS test scores, then it certainly ought to become the leading reform model in Georgia, and APS should share its secrets.