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AJC Takes Its ‘Cheating’ Show on the Road, to Mixed Reviews*

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*This blog has been updated and corrected to reflect additional information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and with comment from Robert Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test.

School districts across the country are on the defensive because of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation that has been raising questions about the validity of ‘suspect’ test scores at their campuses – news that’s perceived by some educators as being even more damaging because the source is an out-of-town newspaper with a limited view of local schools.

The AJC spent seven months examining student test data requested from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The resulting stories in the “Cheating Our Children” series allege that suspicious test score patterns – which alone are not evidence of cheating – were found in 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts.

I had previously written that the paper’s methodology has been challenged by some educators and researchers. In a written response to that statement, the AJC told me it developed the methodology “with the help of four prominent experts in statistics and testing” and “was also guided by an understanding of what cheating looks like in test-score data that emerged from Georgia’s confirmation of widespread cheating in Atlanta schools.”

The fallout from the series has been significant. The public schools in Mobile, Ala. — and the local newspaper, the  Press-Register – have taken particular exception to the AJC’s reporting.

In an interview with the Press-Register, Bert Roughton, managing editor of the AJC, said the newspaper did not accuse any school system of cheating.

“Nowhere do we assert this is absolute proof that we have found cheating. We say that we found something that looks serious,” Roughton said. “People who say that we have accused them of cheating aren’t reading what we wrote carefully. The test scores are suspicious. There’s a high likelihood of human interference.”

That explanation did not satisfy the Press-Register’s editorial board, which wrote that “regardless of managing editor Burt Roughton’s protestation that ‘nowhere do we assert this is absolute proof that we have found cheating,’ the insinuation is unmistakable. Now, despite the adage that it’s impossible to prove a negative, Mobile County school leaders have no choice but to try. The honor of their teachers and pupils is at stake.”

The AJC named individual districts in its first batch of stories in March. This month, the reporting focused on individual schools which received the prestigious “Blue Ribbon” from the U.S. Department of Education, an honor that is supposed to recognize significant and sustained student achievement. (There were just 256 public schools to earn the honor in 2011.) Dozens of Blue Ribbon schools had “statistically improbable” test score gains that were unlikely to have occurred without manipulation, the AJC concluded.

The AJC’s findings didn’t sit well with the U.S. Department of Education. With the right leadership and instructional support, dramatic gains are possible, said department spokesman Daren Briscoe.

“The implication of the AJC article – that dramatic school improvement is impossible, or that some students are too disadvantaged to make significant academic progress in a short time, is troubling,” Briscoe said in a written response to a request for comment. “Students in disadvantaged communities don’t have to cheat in order to compete academically with their more privileged peers.”

But one observer — Jay Mathews, a longtime education journalist and author of the Washington Post’s “Class Struggles” column—  said he was disappointed by what he perceived as an implicit part of Briscoe’s defense.

“They’ve decided to take the political route and tarnish anyone who raises the possibility of cheating as saying that disadvantaged kids just can’t do it,” Mathews told me.

Mathews also took issue with the AJC’s investigation for singling out Highland Elementary in Silver Spring, Md., for no reason other than its student achievement scores fit the paper’s profile for “suspicious” gains.

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr released a statement calling the AJC report irresponsible journalism, and also said that the improved test scores were the result of hard work, leadership and a motivated staff, according to the Maryland Gazette.

The lack of complaints about cheating at Highland Elementary “does not prove the absence of improper activities. nor do the score changes prove that there was cheating,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for Fair Test.

“I have no idea what really took place,” said Schaeffer, whose organization advocates for appropriate use of standardized testing. “But the zig-zag pattern of test scores should be more than sufficient to justify an in-depth, independent review using an array of forensic tools.”

The statements by Starr and the Education Department “dismissing the AJC’s story by attacking the messenger should be dismissed as self-serving and irrelevant,” Schaeffer said. “The data require more facts, not more rhetoric.”

Last spring, in the wake of USA Today’s extensive investigation examining the validity of the District of Columbia Public Schools’ unusually large gains in student test scores, Mathews wrote a column urging U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to “take back the Blue Ribbon” if it turned out cheating could be proved.

In our conversation, Mathews said he couldn’t fairly criticize federal education officials without pointing to what he saw as related oversights by his own employer. Each year, the Post chooses the recipients of its Distinguished Educational Leadership Award, and relies on local school district officials to make the nominations. One of the nominees was principal of a school that had been singled out in the USA Today report for suspect student achievement, and the Post should have done its own due diligence before handing out the award, Mathews said.

“We trusted the district to come up with that name, and we should have been more careful,” Mathews said. “I’m going to be critical of Arne Duncan but I’m also going to be critical of the Washington Post.