The AJC has published the second installment in its major series on test score disparities nationwide. Today’s stories look at the improbable score patterns in some of the nation’s most highly decorated schools, National Blue Ribbon Schools.
AJC reporters included a winning school that even merited a visit from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Highland Elementary in Maryland.
“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 thew award 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, according to the AJC analysis. It is essential to verify the achievement at these heralded school as they are held up as role models.
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.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog