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Maryland School Officials React To Report On 'Suspect Scores'

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Highland Elementary has drawn some scrutiny for the speed with which it improved reading scores amongst students.
Matt Bush
Highland Elementary has drawn some scrutiny for the speed with which it improved reading scores amongst students.

School leaders in Montgomery County are fighting back against a newspaper article that suggested cheating on standardized tests may have helped one school receive a national award.

The article appeared in yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It looked at several schools across the country that received Blue Ribbon awards from the federal Department of Education for rapid improvement on test scores. Much of the article focused on Highland Elementary in Silver Spring and its drastic improvement on the state's 5th grade reading exam from 2007 to 2009, the year it won the Blue Ribbon award. 

In 2007, the number of students who achieved advanced scores on the test was 24 percent, according to the article. In 2009, that number was 94 percent. Several researchers quoted in the article say it's statistically impossible for such drastic increases to happen in such a short period of time without tampering of some kind, though the Journal-Constitution says any statistical analysis can not prove cheating occurred.

Montgomery County schools superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr says he's angry at the article's inference of cheating, especially at a school with predominantly minority and poor students: "That somehow if African-American children, and Latino children, and poorer children's achievement increases, that somehow it's related to cheating. We do not accept anybody disparaging the hard work of our staff and our kids."

The number of students receiving the advanced grade on the reading test has dropped steeply since the school won the award, which Starr blames on budget cuts, especially the end of a federal grant in 2010 targeted at raising reading proficiency.

"The reason why the advanced rates went up was that they were able to provide some one-on-one direct instruction to kids," says Starr. "When that was taken away, some of those advanced rates went down. It's exactly what you would expect to see when there's a decline in resources."

Highland Elementary Principal Scott Steffan is also taking offense, noting that the report only looked at one specific test score increase: 5th-graders who achieved the advanced reading level.

Steffan echoes the superintendent about the budget cuts, which he says took away staff who worked with struggling students.

"When you're a teacher or as a school, when you have to make a decision about priorities, am I going to focus on these advanced reading strategies or am I going to focus more on my students who are reading below grade level can read at grade level by the end of the year, you're always going to choose working with your neediest students."

Of students in grades 3-5 at the school, 93 percent still pass the basic reading proficiency level.

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