A blue ribbon for cheating?

National Blue Ribbon School Awards are going to schools with suspicious test score spikes, charges the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its Cheating Our Children series. Once the award only went to schools with a long record of success, but now a school with disadvantaged students and a single year of high scores can win the award.

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. . . . 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.

The school’s turnaround was “absolutely remarkable,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, when he presented the award in 2009.

“And remarkably unlikely,” conclude reporters.

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.

At a Brooklyn elementary school, 15 percent of fourth-graders posted advanced scores in 2008, 81 percent in 2009. The odds are one in 30 million, the newspaper estimates.

When Ray Myrtle, a veteran principal, took over Highland Elementary in 2006, only 16 percent of the school’s fifth-graders scored at the advanced level on the Maryland reading exam. In 2007, that rose to 24 percent, not a surprising gain.

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.

. . . 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.

Myrtle retired in 2010. Montgomery County, Maryland school officials deny that cheating boosted test scores.

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  1. Daniel Hess says:

    I attended Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring, MD the 1980s for six years. I know that school well and I looked into the data. It is every bit as suspicious has been suggested. I too was suspicious of this data when I saw it a few years ago. I still live in Montgomery County with three children of my own.

    You should ask more questions because I am very certain that the test data of Highland Elementary School shows that something is amiss.

    Here are 4 important issues that the data show which need further investigation:

    (1) How can a school have 61.9% of its students be receiving special instruction for Limited English Proficiency (see link below) and in precisely the same year (2009) have 94% of its students be advanced in not any subject in particular but English reading specifically?

    Of course this is patently absurd.

    (2) With a student body that has a majority of immigrant students of limited English proficiency, you would expect greater success at math or science than English reading. Instead, the opposite is true:

    Here are the astonishingly high reading scores:

    Here are the relatively poor math scores:

    And here are the extremely poor science scores:

    These supposedly incredible teachers and students did very poorly in the very areas that one would have expected them to excel at.

    (3) An important statistical technique is to look at cohort effects. The reading data shows a massive jump from 2007 to 2008 in the fifth grade data. Then there is a massive drop from 2010 to 2011. We can follow the *same group of students* for fourth and third grades and see what we find.

    Looking at the fourth grade data we see that the very same group of students that reported 80% advanced reading in 5th grade in 2008 reported only 25% advanced reading in 2007 in 4th grade.

    From 2010 to 2011, there was a huge drop from 86% advanced reading in the fifth grade level to 42% in 2011. That same group of students reporting that incredible 86% of students achieving advanced in fifth grade had only shown 30% advanced reading two years earlier in third grade.

    Even more astonishing to me, that group of students reported to have an incredible 94% of their students achieving advanced reading in 5th grade in 2009, was the same group that reported a mere 12.1% advanced reading in 2007 in third grade.

    This group that reported such terrific results was apparently not learning much along the way.

    (4) In 2009, at the same time that the fifth grade class at Highland elementary was reporting such incredible results with 94% of all students performing at an advanced level, the third grade class under the same school leadership was performing at an abysmally low level with just 13.6% of students doing advanced reading. This is going on simultaneously!

    Please don’t let these questions go unanswered. Something is very fishy. Mr. Starr seems intent on quashing the matter without even investigating.

    Best regards,
    Daniel Hess
    Concerned Montgomery County Parent and Highland Elementary School Graduate, Class of 1989

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Did the principal receive a pay increase for these suspicious scores, an increase that results in a permanent increase in his pension?

    That would be not just cheating but stealing.

    • I see it as a statement on the pathetic nature of the professional rewards available to educators.

      The public education system’s so empty of possibilities for distinction that a plaque and a ribbon are all that’s necessary to get these bums to cheat on these tests and risk getting caught.

      If you look at the situation in isolation it’s just stupid to get tagged as a principal who cheats on the tests necessary to win this award. You get a plaque and a flag. Big whoop. But the award has some visibility and really, what other way does a principal have to distinguish themselves? Districts have little reason to recognize the professional excellence of their best principals. Parents aren’t in a position to offer rewards to an excellent principal. Whose that leave to confer some distinction on someone who’s a leader in their field? No one.

      There’s the real problem.

  3. I’m neither surprised that the DOE is focused on diversity in their Blue Ribbon schools nor that they are being sloppy and taking shortcuts to get it. Having raised my kids in MoCo (where they attended one of the very first Blue Ribbon schools), I am not surprised at the situation at Highland.

    It was widely known, among students and parents, that the county-wide HS course descriptions mostly applied only to those schools on the western (more affluent) side of the county; the eastern schools’ courses (other than magnets) were likely much less challenging. It was also widely known that each HS set their own passing score for the county-wide algebra I (and later geometry) test, resulting in a huge differences among schools (could be more than 20 points, as I recall). I remember reading in the paper when the Board of Ed discovered this practice and members professed themselves to be shocked, shocked that this had been happening for at least a decade! They did end that practice, finally.
    My kids have all been out of college for at least 5 years, but I’m guessing that not a lot has changed.

  4. dgentry says:

    As educators, we need to realize that we are the ones who “let the genie out of the box” when it comes to standardized testing. It is a monster of our own creation. Instead of listening to teachers, the education establishment allowed the psychometricians steal the show. Since we are the creators of this mess, we need to figure out a way to make it right. I wrote an article on my blog the other day that addresses some of these same issues.

    You can find the article at: plpeducation.blogspot.com.