Highland Elementary test scores scrutinized, superintendent responds

Starr called the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's article "irresponsible." (Photo: Montgomery County Schools)

The superintendent of Montgomery County Schools is lashing out at an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that suggests that a county elementary school cheated to achieve a dramatic turnaround in standardized test scores.

In the article, the writers say that Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring is among multiple schools nationwide, including several in the Atlanta metro area, that had "statistically improbable" spikes in test scores. It says that Highand is one of 27 schools identified in their investigation that hold "few other credible explanations" on how scores went up so quickly.

"More often than not, something other than student learning was causing those gains," James Wollock, the director of testing and evaluation services at the University of Wisconsin, told the AJC.

On Monday, County Superintendent Joshua Starr called the reporting in the article irresponsible and stereotypical, saying that there are "no shortcuts to this success." Highland won a National Blue Ribbon Award in 2009.

"The underlying message is that schools comprised of mostly African American, Hispanic or poor students cannot achieve at a high level unless they cheat," Starr said in a statement. "We know that is not the case and are disturbed by the inference."

Highland's principal, Scott Stefan, also decried the allegations of cheating at his school.

"(It's a) baseless allegation here at the school," Stefan said.

For parents, including Salvador Villatoro, the accusations also came as a surprise. Two of Villatoro's children graduated from Highland, a school that is mostly made up of minority and poor students.

"The school is a good school," he said. "The teachers...they do an amazing job."

Starr also says that one specific writer, Alan Judd, fails to denote that a drop in reading scores at the school was in part due to the loss of reading instruction staff because of financial strains, and that 95 percent of the 5th graders at Highland had scored proficient or higher for three consecutive years.

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

Highland's Blue Ribbon Award came at the apex of two-year growth in student test scores. The Journal-Constitution says that in 2007, two years after a new principal was hired, 23.5 percent of 5th graders passed reading exams. That number jumped to 79.6 percent the next year and 93.9 percent in 2009. It went back down to 41.7 percent in 2011.

You can read the full article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution here.