Dr. Starr Responds to Irresponsible Atlanta Journal-Constitution Article

April 30, 2012

MCPS Superintendent of Schools Joshua P. Starr offered the following response to Sunday's article in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) has published an article that looked at the standardized test results of schools that were named National Blue Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education. Highland Elementary School, in Silver Spring, was one of the schools included in the AJC’s article. The story identifies large swings in standardized test scores for the schools that won the Blue Ribbon award. The AJC’s implication is that Highland students and staff must have cheated. 

Let me be clear: The turnaround that occurred at Highland Elementary School was the result of having a great school leader and a motivated staff that had the training, support and resources it needed to serve its students. There has never been an allegation of cheating at Highland Elementary School since the school’s turnaround began and the school continues to get tremendous results even as its resources have been cut significantly over the past four years.

The AJC’s story not only represents irresponsible journalism, but it fosters the very stereotypes that have dogged public education for too long. 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. There are no shortcuts to this success. It takes focus, investment and commitment, but all students can learn if they are provided the instruction, supports and interventions they need.

Highland has nothing to hide, which is why we welcomed AJC reporter Alan Judd to the school. He saw the tremendous instruction going on in each classroom, saw multiple examples of great student work and spoke at length to the teachers and principals. Little of that is represented in the story, and what is represented is in the last section of the article long after the suggestion of cheating has been made. The AJC does not offer one scintilla of evidence that cheating occurred at Highland, but rather uses inferences and selective data in an attempt to prove its point.

The article suggests that Highland’s performance on state assessments has fallen dramatically, focusing on a drop in the percentage of students that scored in the “advanced” range in 5th grade reading. However, Mr. Judd was told numerous times that the drop was related to budget reductions that resulted in the loss of staff that helped with focused reading instruction and interventions for students that were struggling. He fails to mention that the percentage of 5th grade students scoring at proficient or higher on the reading exam was above 95 percent, where it has been for three consecutive years.

The article suggests that the fact that Highland didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2011 is a further indication of questionable results in the past. Yet, the authors fail to mention that in 2011, Highland missed AYP by four students in just one subgroup—special education—in mathematics during a year that the Annual Measurable Objective increased. This data tells us nothing about Highland, but rather speaks to the absurdity of the AYP formula. 

The AJC had its story written long before it visited Highland Elementary, which is unfortunate. But that does not diminish the accomplishments of the school’s staff and students.

I challenge anyone to walk the halls of Highland, watch the teaching and learning in the classrooms and see the quality of the student work and not come away convinced that the school’s test scores are not only valid, but are also just a small indicator of its success.

Note: This press release was changed on May 1, 2012 to correct the term Annual Measurable Objective. It was originially called Academic Measurable Objective.

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