Published Online: April 30, 2012 By The Associated Press
Dozens of schools that won a prestigious national award in the past three years exhibit extreme test-score increases or other factors that suggest cheating, according to an investigation byThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Begun in 1982, the National Blue Ribbons Schools Awards honor consistent high performance and improvement by chronically ailing schools. They can boost the careers of superintendents, principals and teachers and give schools permanent cachet.
But an analysis by the Atlanta newspaper of 605 recent Blue Ribbon winners identified dozens of schools where statistically improbable increases in test scores peaked in the year before the schools submitted their successful applications for the award. In that year, the analysis found, the most suspicious gains occurred about three times more often in Blue Ribbon winners than at all schools nationwide.
Additionally, the analysis identified more than two dozen Blue Ribbon schools among that group that had the most unlikely gains. In some grades and subjects, the odds of increases occurring without an intervention such as tampering were incalculable.
"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.
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 resembled those that signaled widespread cheating in Atlanta. The newspaper examined 69,000 public schools.
The newspaper's analysis of Blue Ribbon winners suggests that cheating has undermined the program's integrity while shortchanging students whose achievements have been overstated. Blue Ribbon schools are held up as models for other schools to emulate.
At two-thirds of the schools with the most unusual gains, a majority of students came from poor families. Poverty is typically among the toughest impediments for strong test achievement, researchers say. Yet in just one year, many of the schools rocketed from among the worst performers in their states to among the best.
No statistical analysis alone can prove that anyone cheated. Better instruction was the most common explanation by school officials interviewed by the AJC. But testing experts say research shows good teaching can't shift the scores of so many students so quickly to such odds-defying degrees.
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."
"More often than not," Wollack said, "something other than student learning was causing those gains."
Wollack also reviewed the AJC's findings.
Federal officials say they closely review each school's application. The Department of Education, however, solicits schools that give the appearance of overcoming economic and demographic obstacles—schools that the department says "beat the odds."
The program's critics say federal officials rely too heavily on information that originates from the schools. Originally, only schools that were longtime top performers could win the award. In the No Child Left Behind era, though, a school can qualify if 40 percent of its students come from poor families and test scores are among the fastest-rising in its state.
"I would not just take their word for it," said Tom Loveless, who has studied the Blue Ribbon program for more than a decade at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. "It tends to reward self-promotion."
The Department of Education says it expects states to verify test scores before endorsing schools' applications.
"If there is a significant jump in the improvement level, we check in the school's application to see if they have supporting documentation," Aba Kumi, director of the Blue Ribbon program, said in an interview. "If it's questionable, we go back to the states to verify the data. If the state affirms, or stands behind the school's scores, we accept their judgment.
"If it's a little too good to be true and they don't have sufficient information ... we have to return the nomination back to the state."
Such cases, she said, are rare.