SILVER SPRING, Md. (WUSA) -- Did one of Montgomery County's most admired schools cheat to win the country's top education award?
Local school leaders say an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution is a lie. But the newspaper is sticking by its story.
The principal at Highland Elementary in Silver Spring and the schools superintendent in Montgomery County say the paper has slandered the hard work of the teachers and students at the once-troubled school.
Experts for the paper say the huge swings in test scores at the school are virtually impossible to explain without cheating.
At Highland Elementary, the big banner proclaiming the school a National Blue Ribbon Award winner flies outside and inside. Over three years leading up to the award, average scores soared 78 points. A remarkable gain for a school that had been on the verge of state takeover.
School officials are blasting the reporter who wrote the story.... saying he ignored the massive influx of resources that turned the school around. "When the reporter came into the school, he saw all that," says superintendent Joshua Starr. "Yet he still decided to take the angle that it had to be the result of cheating and that Black kids, and Latin kids and poor kids cannot achieve at a high level."
Parent Fortune Orji says there's no way the school could fake his son's progress in reading. "My son, he's doing great. He was student of the week, student of the month, student of the year....There is no way he could do so well if they were cheating."
But the Atlanta paper stands by it's reporting, pointing to a significant fall off in scores of students scoring advanced in reading the year after the award.
"This is exactly how the Atlanta scandal unfolded," says editor Kevin Riley. "We reported strange swings in test scores that experts said were impossible." And a Georgia state investigation found serious problems with several Atlanta schools. "Those investigators found 200 administrators guilty of cheating."
But at Highland, 93 percent of students are still scoring advanced or proficient -- and no one but the paper has even hinted at cheating. "People are outraged," says principal Scott Steffan. "They're infuriated. People are crying because just the insinuation that cheating went on is so powerful." Steffan has worked at the school for nine years, and he says he has "never, never, never," seen faculty cheating on state tests.
In Atlanta, investigators found suspicious erasures on some of the tests. But in Silver Spring, the reading tests involved essay questions, and Starr and Steffan say cheating on them would have required such a conspiracy as to be nearly impossible.
Highland's success has been studied by scholars at Harvard and the National Education Association, and a schools spokesman says none of them has found any sign of cheating. Neither has the Maryland State Department of Education, says spokesman Dana Tofig.
At this point, the paper's suspicions about Highland are based solely on that big uptick and then fall off in test scores. School leaders say that is tied to hundreds of thousands of dollars it got to boost scores -- and then the loss of those dollars.
And they say the school and the students are still doing well even without all the extra money because of hard work and dedication -- not cheating.
Written and Reported by Bruce Leshan
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