To our readers
Beginning today, we're taking you on a virtual journey to help tackle one of our community's most intractable problems. This week and occasionally throughout the year we'll report on urban school districts in the United States where educators have proved the most successful in teaching poor, minority students. We hope our “Field Trip” helps the Omaha School Board, its new superintendent, Nancy Sebring, and all educators, policymakers and citizens who seek the best for disadvantaged children.
— Executive Editor Mike Reilly
Today: Urban schools playbook
Monday: Measurable goals
Tuesday: Data-driven instruction
Wednesday: Strong principals
Thursday: Effective teachers
When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an analysis of suspicious results on standardized tests, some of the nation's leading urban districts faced uncomfortable questions.
The newspaper reported in late March that 196 of the nation's 3,125 largest school districts had high numbers of schools with extreme swings in their test scores from one year to the next.
The report, titled “Cheating Our Children,” examined more than 1.6 million state test score records from 69,000 U.S. schools. Its statistical analysis was similar to the method it used earlier to uncover suspicious test scores in Atlanta schools. A subsequent state investigation found that cheating did in fact occur in those schools.
In its national investigation, the Atlanta newspaper acknowledged that the analysis did not prove cheating in the 196 districts. It said additional investigation would be needed to determine that.
Districts identified through the analysis included Aldine, Texas, near Houston and Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina.
Both districts are hailed for educational strategies that have produced test score gains. Both have won national awards for urban districts, such as the Broad Foundation's $1 million prize, based partly on their test successes.
If their test scores are tainted, what does that say about their awards and status as model urban districts?
The World-Herald delayed the publication of this series to study the Atlanta analysis and the cheating issue.
Atlanta's methodology was explored, a sampling of Charlotte and Aldine test scores was reviewed, and district and state education officials and others were interviewed.
A statistical analysis like Atlanta's can help uncover questionable test results. And it's impossible to rule out the possibility that cheating exists in any district.
But the Atlanta analysis alone, in the absence of evidence of cheating in Aldine and Charlotte, wasn't enough to discard the lessons learned from those districts' instructional strategies.
No widespread cheating has been alleged or proven in those districts. Local officials defend their successes on state tests, and state officials don't question the results. The Broad Foundation stands behind its award winners, saying it selects them based on a comprehensive review, not just test scores.
In addition, Charlotte has some of the best results for low-income, minority students among urban districts on a separate, federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The federal test results were not questioned by the Atlanta newspaper's analysis. Aldine's NAEP scores are not reported separately.
While proven cheating would indeed tarnish a district's accomplishments, it's worth noting that the strategies in place in Charlotte and Aldine align with approaches favored by education reformers.
And those strategies often are the same ones used in other successful urban districts — such as Boston and Hillsborough County in Florida — that haven't been singled out as “most suspect” by the Atlanta newspaper.