The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story this weekend questioning ”extreme score gains” at Silver Spring’s Highland Elementary School and at dozens of other schools that have won the national Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Education Department.

Highland went from the cusp of a state takeover in 2005 to posting some of the highest reading scores in Maryland by 2009. The remarkable turn-around came about at a school with a challenging population. More than 80 percent of is students come from poverty and a majority don’t speak English at home. The school won the prestigious federal award in 2008.

Unlike in some cases of alleged cheating that the Atlanta newspaper and other news outlets have exposed, the latest story did not report any suspicious erasure rates on answer sheets or include allegations of cheating made by teachers or staff members. Montgomery officials have repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Still, such jumps are “remarkably unlikely” and suggest cheating, the article said. From the story:

No statistical analysis alone can prove that anyone cheated. But in data and documents and in interviews with school officials and testing experts, few other credible explanations surfaced for how the scores of so many students could shift so quickly to such odds-defying degrees.

“Those kinds of changes are just incomprehensible,” said Jaxk Reeves, director of the University of Georgia Statistical Consulting Center. Reeves was one of the academic experts who reviewed the AJC’s analysis.

Another researcher who advised the newspaper, James Wollack, director of testing and evaluation services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said many schools credit their instructional strategies for overnight success. But no changes in teaching methods, he said, are enough to account for “ridiculous, nonsensical gains.”

“More often than not,” Wollack said, “something other than student learning was causing those gains.”

Montgomery County school leaders say there have never been any allegations of cheating at Highland.

“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,” said Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr in a statement.

Starr said the article “represents irresponsible journalism,” and encourages negative stereotypes. “The underlying message is that schools comprised of mostly African American, Hispanic or poor students cannot achieve at a high level unless they cheat,” he said in the statement. “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.”

A 2009 case study by the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University highlighted the ingredients of Highland’s success. Then-superintendent Jerry Weast hired Ray Myrtle, a retired principal who had worked at Somerset Elementary, a high achieving school in affluent Chevy Chase.

The 28-page report documents strategies that Myrtle used to focus and improve instruction.

He introduced a new literacy program with more challenging, non-fiction texts and a lot more writing. The new approach appealed more to students’ interest and introduced more advanced vocabulary.

Teachers were trained to personalize instruction by breaking the class into small groups focused on varying tasks according to need or ability. They learned how to use frequent assessments to ascertain how students were progressing and what they needed next.

A math specialist also worked with teachers to improve their lesson plans and personalize instruction.

The new model discouraged pulling students out of the class for any reason — including special education or English-as-a-second-language instruction or for behavioral problems. The goals was for every student to remain focused on the same curriculum and standardized tests, and to keep expectations high for every student.

Teachers who were uncomfortable with the new approach were encouraged to leave or decided to leave on their own.

The strongest gains came in English.

In 2006, 16 percent of Highland’s fifth-graders scored at the advanced level on the Maryland reading exam. By 2009, 94 percent of the fifth-graders did. Since then, scores have slipped. Last year, only 42 percent achieved an advanced score on the test.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution article suggests that the recent declines highlight the improbability of the school’s historic success.

Montgomery officials say, though, that the school has lost funding and positions in recent years. Its Title I budget dropped from $795,000 to $654,000 since fiscal 2008, and it lost two support positions who previously worked intensively with below-grade-level readers.

Principal Myrtle retired in 2010. Current principal Scott Steffan also mentioned additional turnover in teaching staff as another possible explanation for declines.

One reason given for its big increase in scores the 2007-2008 school year compared to the previous year could also be a sizable decrease in enrollment. The number of students dropped from 640 to 487, after another elementary school opened nearby. While the demographics continued to be similar, the smaller school allowed for more focused instruction, officials say.

Without clear evidence of test tampering, the story seems to fall back on a broader question — Are miraculous turnarounds even possible? If a success story seems to good to be true, can it be true?

At a time when every politician and school leader is searching for an answer, is there really a magic bullet?

And if there is a tried and true method of achieving overwhelming success, why aren’t more schools doing it?