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.