LA PLATA, Md. - Charles County Public Schools is graduating seniors who have missed a third of the school year in unexcused absences, according to attendance records.
In an open records request, FOX5 has found 114 seniors missed 20 or more days unexcused. The numbers also include students who missed 60 days, or a third of the school year. However, the graduation rate for the class of 2018 was nearly 95%, a record high for the district. Only 28 seniors didn't graduate, according to data provided by the school system.
A high school educator who spoke to FOX 5 on the condition of anonymity, said teachers are under pressure to pass students even if they're not showing up.
"It doesn't matter if you come or not, you're going to pass," she said. "Teachers have to have so many kids pass or else it reflects bad on them."
Charles County Schools Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Hill refused to sit down with FOX 5 for an on-camera interview. But Deputy Superintendent Amy Hollstein said all students who miss school have to make up the work and can do so through online credit recovery, a common but controversial program that allows students to make up classes they've failed.
"It's a lot of work for them. They come on Saturdays. They stay after school," said Hollstein.
She called the process "rigorous," and said all students deserve a second chance.
"We don't write off any student," Hollstein said. "We're going to do everything we can to help them graduate."
Students can even make up work if they've missed a third of the school year, according to school policy.
Speaking with Hollstein, FOX 5's Lindsay Watts asks "How do you make that up? Is it possible at that point?"
She said it's possible.
"We have to look at children as individuals," she said. "And sometimes you have to do the extraordinary for them. And I'm proud of what we do."
Schools across the country have been accused of lowering standards to graduate more students.
In Prince George's County Public Schools, a state audit following a FOX 5 investigation found nearly one-third of recent graduates in a sample group either didn't earn a diploma or didn't have the records to prove they earned it.
It also showed the school system wasn't following its own attendance policy and graduating seniors despite more than 50 absences.
In Washington, D.C., an audit found one-third of public school graduates in 2017 only graduated because teachers and administrators failed to follow policy on attendance and credit recovery.
"When you start to dig in, you find out that there are a lot of ways for schools to play games and basically, to lower the standards to get more kids across the finish line," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group.
Petrilli says over the last decade, there has been immense pressure from the federal government to increase graduation rates. In turn, graduation rates have increased dramatically.
"What is happening is we are graduating students, giving them a diploma that is now worth less than it used to be, And for those students, that means they are heading out into the adult world not fully prepared," he said. "If they don't show up for work, they're going to get fired. They need to do the work in school or not get a diploma. We are not actually doing them a favor by giving it to them anyway."
Earlier this year, Maryland State Department of Education surveyed school districts on grade changing and attendance policies. While in some counties, students automatically fail after a certain number of unexcused absences, in other counties, attendance has no impact on grades.
Charles County Public Schools reported to the state: "Students in grades 9-12 who have two or more illegal absences in a course, during a quarter, will receive a failing grade for that course," for the marking period.
Hollstein acknowledged that is not the district's policy.
"There was no way to expand (the response) to explain that, yes, they will fail, however, if they take advantage of one of our programs, they have an opportunity to recover," she said.
For news tips and this and other issues around the DMV, contact reporter Lindsay Watts at firstname.lastname@example.org