The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. schools increasingly graduating chronically absent students, report finds

More than 1 of every 10 students receiving a diploma from a D.C. public high school last year missed most of the academic year, according to an investigation released Tuesday that casts a shadow on a district that has trumpeted improvements in graduation rates.

The report, commissioned by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, portrays a school system riddled by student absenteeism and teachers who feel pressured to push chronically absent high school seniors across the graduation stage regardless of whether they earned their diplomas.

The review saved some of its sharpest criticism for Ballou High School, which has been engulfed in controversy amid a graduation scandal. The report found that the school's administrators told teachers that a high percentage of their students were expected to pass and encouraged them to provide makeup work and extra credit to students, no matter how much school they missed. Teachers received little training in a new grading system, and their annual performance reviews hinged in small part on their success in graduating students.

At the same time the report was released, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson announced that Ballou Principal Yetunde Reeves, who had been reassigned pending the investigation, will not return to the Southeast Washington school.

"Based on the findings of our investigation, we believe that's the right thing to do," Wilson said in an interview Tuesday. "Ultimately, we as leaders have to make sure that the policies are followed."

Reeves did not respond to a request for comment.

The report comes as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser — who is running for reelection — touts progress in the school system, describing it as a once-blighted district that has transformed into the "fastest-improving urban school district in the country." The report's findings could stain the high-profile reforms enacted by former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson.

In the combined 10 years Rhee and Henderson led the city's schools, their experiment in school reform became a national model for urban schools.

Wilson took over the school district in February and comes from the same education philosophy as Rhee and Henderson.

"Everyone rejoiced at the increase in graduation rates," said Mary Levy, a former education policy analyst and longtime critic of Rhee. "And now it looks as though what skeptics have been saying for years — and that's no. This is just sort of a veneer that makes the system look good and underneath, it calls into question the integrity in the system in awarding diplomas."

The investigation was prompted by a November article by WAMU and NPR that said Ballou High gave diplomas to seniors who did not meet graduation requirements. While the WAMU-NPR article focused on Ballou, the report from the state superintendent's office examined attendance and grading practices across the city, determining that truancy is more severe at neighborhood schools such as Ballou than in charter or application schools.

At a December D.C. Council hearing, Ballou teachers, parents and students said the predominantly black and low-income school was being unfairly maligned. Media reports, they said, don't reflect that students are often responsible for taking siblings and other young family members to school and that diligent teachers are doing all they can to ensure that students facing obstacles are prepared and on track for college.

Education-reform activists cautioned that graduation rates represent just one measurement of school success. At Ballou, the graduation rate rose from 50 percent in 2012 to 64 percent last year. Wilson said at the D.C. Council hearing in December that, despite persistent absenteeism, he believes students are still learning.

Catharine Bellinger, D.C. director for Democrats for Education Reform — which has long supported Rhee — said that standardized test scores across the District have improved and that while the improvements at traditionally low-performing schools such as Ballou have been slow, they indicate an upward trend.

Test scores from 2016 showed that 8 percent of Ballou students met or approached meeting standards in math, while 9 percent met or approached standards in English.

In 2017, those numbers increased to 10 percent in math and 22 percent in English.

"It's damning that we are still failing students," Bellinger said. "But I don't believe that graduation numbers are a strong single measure in terms of whether reform efforts are working."

The Office of the State Superintendent teamed up with the consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal to conduct the investigation. The office says a second, broader report is expected to be released at the end of the month.

D.C. Public Schools said an internal investigation should also be released at the end of the month.

The review released Tuesday found that 11.4 percent of D.C. Public Schools graduates in 2017 missed more than half of the school days. And about 75 percent of the 2,307 graduates systemwide missed more than 10 percent of the school days. The report found that the problem had worsened in the past three years.

According to the report, D.C. Public Schools staff instructed high school teachers to enroll students in credit-recovery classes if they were not on track to graduate — a violation of city policy. Credit recovery is an initiative that allows students to retake a class they previously failed, and student are permitted to enroll in credit recovery only if they have already failed the class. Students at Ballou, according to the report, were frequently enrolled in these makeup courses while they were still in the original class.

"The school engaged in inappropriate or excessive use of credit recovery, including allowing students who had not yet failed courses to take credit recovery for original credit," the report says.

The report also found that teachers followed an unofficial practice under which students who did not complete assignments were given a score of 50 percent — instead of zero percent — boosting their overall grade averages.

Wilson said teachers have lacked proper instruction on grading, and he promised to institute systemwide training.

"We are saying that we have the courage to fix what needs to be fixed," Wilson said. "And what needs to be fixed across the District is that we need to make sure that people are trained in our grading policy."

As part of his changes, the chancellor said high school seniors' transcripts will be reviewed to ensure they qualify to graduate — something not previously done.

The report also examined charter schools, finding that while the D.C. Public Charter School Board audits seniors' transcripts ahead of graduation, it does not review attendance data to ensure that schools are following their own attendance policies.

Teachers said they attempted to alert the chancellor and other city leaders to troubles at Ballou before the WAMU-NPR report but received no response. The chancellor said he would appoint an ombudsman to field staff complaints to ensure they rise to attention sooner.

"The standard for excellence means that students' diplomas mean they've learned what they need to know — and we know that they learned it," Wilson said. "We have to make sure that that is the case going forward. That was not the case in this instance."