Begun in 1982, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Awards honor consistent high performance and improvement by chronically ailing schools. They can boost the careers of superintendents, principals and teachers and give schools permanent cachet.
An analysis by the newspaper of 605 recent Blue Ribbon winners identified dozens of schools where statistically improbable increases in test scores peaked in the year before the schools submitted their successful applications. In that year, the analysis found, the most suspicious gains occurred about three times more often in Blue Ribbon winners than at all schools nationwide.
Additionally, the analysis identified more than two dozen Blue Ribbon schools among that group that had the most unlikely gains. In some grades and subjects, the odds of increases occurring without an intervention such as tampering were incalculable.
“Those kinds of changes are just incomprehensible,” said Jaxk Reeves, the director of the University of Georgia Statistical Consulting Center, who was one of the academic experts who reviewed the analysis.
The newspaper examined Blue Ribbon winners as part of a nationwide analysis of test scores. In an article last month, it identified nearly 200 school districts where test-score changes resembled those that signaled widespread cheating in Atlanta. The newspaper examined 69,000 public schools.
At two-thirds of the schools with the most unusual gains in the Blue Ribbon analysis, a majority of students came from poor families. Poverty is typically among the toughest impediments for strong test achievement, researchers say. Yet in just one year, many of the schools
rocketed from among the worst performers in their states to among the best.
Better instruction was the most common explanation by school officials interviewed by the newspaper.
The Department of Education says it expects states to verify test scores before endorsing schools’ applications.
“If there is a significant jump in the improvement level, we check in the school’s application to see if they have supporting documentation,” said Aba Kumi, the Blue Ribbon director. “If it’s questionable, we go back to the states to verify the data. If the state affirms, or stands behind the school’s scores, we accept their judgment.
“If it’s a little too good to be true and they don’t have sufficient information … we have to return the nomination back to the state.” Such cases, she said, are rare.