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Cheating Series Continues With Look at Blue-Ribbon Schools

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which published a report in March about unusual score variations at schools around the country (see my article on the report here, which includes a link to the original story), has now zeroed in on test score fluctuations at schools that received National Blue Ribbon School awards from the U.S. Department of Education.

The latest report focuses on Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., which was nearly taken over by the state before test scores improved dramatically, earning the school its federal recognition in 2009. However, in subsequent years, test scores fell. From the report:

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."

The current superintendent of the 146,500-student district, Joshua Starr, defended the school against allegations that cheating led to the increased scores. In a press release, he said the Atlanta reporters were told repeatedly that budget cuts forced the district to cut the number of specialists at the school who had helped struggling students. Those staff reductions corresponded to the time frame where test scores dropped at the school, Starr said.

"The AJC's story not only represents irresponsible journalism, but it fosters the very stereotypes that have dogged public education for too long," Starr said in the release. "The underlying message is that schools comprised of mostly African-American, Hispanic or poor students cannot achieve at a high level unless they cheat. We know that is not the case and are disturbed by the inference."

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