Audit: More than a third of DC Public Schools graduates failed to meet graduation requirements

- An independent audit of D.C. Public Schools has revealed 34 percent of students who graduated last year failed to meet graduation policies.

According to the audit, 937 of 2,758 D.C. Public Schools students graduated with the assistance of policy violations. These students were able to pass their classes despite excessive absences in regular instruction courses required for graduation as well as daytime and evening credit recovery courses. Schools also offered credit recovery courses to students who hadn't yet failed a regular course.

The investigation also found that there was “lack of support and oversight from DCPS policy violations across high schools” and teachers and school leaders “contributed to a culture in which passing and graduating students is expected, sometimes in contradiction to standards of academic rigor and integrity."

“What I know is that in all-urban districts, we are not alone in this – that students sometimes can struggle to get to school – attendance is a problem,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. “What it also demonstrates is there is in our comprehensive schools, high schools, there is even a more acute problem.”

The audit found violations were found at all but two schools and happened more often in schools that serve a larger percentage of high-need students such as those living in high poverty, English-language learner and special education students.

This investigation was sparked by a WAMU/NPR report that claimed most of the 2017 graduating class at Ballou High School may have lacked the requirements to graduate, mainly due to poor attendance records. The D.C. high school gained national attention after each of its graduates received at least one college acceptance letter. 

A recent audit performed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education found teachers at Ballou were pressured by the principal and assistant principals to pass students who had not mastered the material and had excessive absences.

Ballou's principal, Dr. Yetunde Reeves, was removed from her position last month.

As the findings of the latest audit of the school district was revealed on Monday, D.C. Public Schools confirmed Dunbar High School principal Abdullah Zaki was placed on leave. The audit said there were more than 4,000 changes to attendance records at Dunbar.

“What I hope is that people are trying do right by kids,” Bowser said. “Unfortunately, they did the wrong things.”

D.C. Public Schools chancellor Antwan Wilson wrote in a letter regarding the audit and the changes the school district will be making:

Dear DCPS Community,

DC Public Schools strives to be a district where every student feels loved, challenged, and prepared to positively influence society and thrive in life. In order for this vision to be realized for every student, we must focus on reaching high standards of excellence and equity in our work in our schools. We must also be a district that has the courage to improve. We have a responsibility to work collaboratively with teachers, families, and the community to ensure that our students receive a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed long after they leave DCPS. 

Today, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) released the final results of their investigation into graduation practices at DCPS. At the same time, DCPS has reviewed our own policies, practices, and student data on grading, credit recovery, and attendance. I take these collective findings seriously, and we must work with integrity and transparency in providing an education that will prepare every student for success in college, career, and life. As a teacher, school leader, and systems leader, I always work with integrity, and I expect the same from every DCPS staff member.

Our internal review as well as the OSSE report indicate that the failure to implement policies and routinely inspect practices in our schools led to a systemic breakdown that failed our students. Many DCPS high schools did not follow grading and credit recovery policies, and one-third of graduates received a diploma despite exceeding the number of absences allowed under the DCPS grading policy. This issue was particularly acute at Anacostia, Ballou, Dunbar, Eastern, Roosevelt, and H.D. Woodson High Schools, with Ballou High School being the most severe. At Ballou, there was a culture of doing “whatever it takes” to pass students regardless of attendance so they could receive their diploma. At Dunbar, there was a culture of modifications to attendance records. While I want our staff to do their best to support students, we cannot lower the bar and we cannot give our students credits they do not earn. 

The first step to improving rests with DCPS. DCPS did not provide sufficient training and support to our schools with the greatest challenges on student attendance. In addition, the district did not provide adequate oversight on grading and credit recovery policies and procedures. The district must provide better direction to schools and improved support to all of our schools. I will ensure this is done.  

Our responsibility is to graduate students with the skills to succeed, and we can only accomplish that when we support students in making it to school every day. That takes more than enforcing policy. We know that the challenges chronically absent students bring are complicated. Our job is to meet and address those challenges, which is the heart of running schools with integrity. 

In the past, DCPS did not have sufficient training and support, nor the right systems to monitor our policies. We will correct that this semester by centrally verifying that every student who walks across the stage in June has earned his or her diploma through a comprehensive transcript review. We will support staff and students on understanding and implementing current policies and procedures, and we will ensure that they are being consistently applied in school and communicated to families. We will also emphasize that every day counts. DCPS will alert families whenever a student misses a class and will partner with families and the community to make sure students attend school every day.

We are improving the DCPS grading and credit recovery policies by May 2018, and we will implement updated policies in School Year 2018-2019. DCPS will engage stakeholders on these updates and improvements, including teachers, school leaders, students, families, and union partners to ensure that our practices align with the high expectations our students deserve. Once the new policies are completed, DCPS will train teachers, counselors, and school leaders to ensure strong implementation. We also will review the effectiveness of current technology used to track attendance and grading. We will improve the functionality of Aspen, our Student Information System (SIS), so all stakeholders can more efficiently and effectively monitor grades, attendance, and other academic information. While this is happening, we will be working on finding a system that better meets our needs.

The real work is keeping expectations high for all students, supporting students in meeting those high expectations, and having the courage to do what is right for every young person in this city. To do that, we will build strong high schools, with a profile of a DCPS graduate, so every student, parent, and community member knows what being a DCPS graduate means and has confidence that our graduates are prepared for college, career, and life. We will create end-of-course assessments that hold students to a high bar, and ensure that we engage stakeholders throughout the process of updating policies and moving forward. 

We will also create new pathways for stakeholders to raise concerns with a new Ombudsman role within the district, to ensure policies and procedures are implemented with fidelity and to follow up on any instance where we are not living up to DCPS expectations. It will be available for teachers, parents, students, and members of the community to report issues related to the district’s adherence to policies, procedures, and commitments.

Today is an opportunity to show how DCPS will move forward to put students first and focus on equity and excellence. I will not give up on our students, and I know this city will not give up on our students. I hope you will join us in creating a system that works for everyone, from those who have the skills to succeed, to making sure every student who needs and earns a second chance has one. Success is when every student is prepared for college, career, and life, and we will work until we reach that success.

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