Prince George's County officials will tighten practices for changing student grades, monitoring absenteeism and certifying graduation requirements under a plan that follows an investigation of alleged fraud in graduation rates.
The 40-page plan, slated for discussion by the county school board Tuesday evening, is expected to go to state officials by month's end, in answer to wide-ranging problems detailed in a state report last month.
That report found nearly 5,500 grade changes in the days before commencement in 2016 and 2017 in the Maryland school system. A sampling of records showed that about 30 percent of students with late grade changes lacked documentation that justified graduation or were clearly ineligible, according to the report.
"We're making a lot of significant changes," said Kevin Maxwell, chief executive of the school system, the state's second-largest. "It's a serious issue and this is going to help us make sure we are doing everything possible to make sure that our students are ready to graduate on time and that the processes and procedures are followed."
The plan calls for stricter controls on access to student records, added training for employees and elimination of controversial "packets" of make-up work given to students hoping to recover from failing grades.
The district will move toward electronic grade-change forms, starting in a handful of schools in spring, to strengthen monitoring. Next school year, graduation certification also will be done electronically, rather than manually through "tally cards" — a change that officials said will improve and automate the process.
The district also will revise procedures for tracking attendance and clarify how unexcused absences will affect student grades. Students in jeopardy of failing a course may still enroll in credit recovery through an online program.
An outside firm will be hired to review how the district of more than 132,000 students has implemented recommended changes. Later, an outside firm will also audit a random selection of student grades and graduation requirements.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered the investigation in Prince George's after a minority bloc on the school board urged that he look into evidence from whistleblowers that grades and credit counts were manipulated.
A D.C. firm — Alvarez & Marsal Public Sector Services — conducted the seven-week inquiry, looking into complaints, examining records and doing interviews at the county's 28 high schools.
Four-year graduation rates in Prince George's climbed from 74.1 percent in 2013 to 81.4 percent in 2016. While the rate is still lower than last year's state average of 87.6 percent, the gain over that period was the largest of any school system in Maryland.
Maxwell had cited improvement in graduation rates as a signature accomplishment.
In an interview, he said he did not think the changes being made would reduce graduation rates in coming years.
"I certainly hope not," he said, adding that educators are working hard to make sure students get the support they need.
The state-ordered report that was released in November did not find any improper action was ordered by school system leaders.
Asked what went wrong, Maxwell spoke about longtime procedural issues and high turnover among administrators in schools and the central office. He noted that some schools used out-of-date forms to make grade changes.
Others have said in recent weeks that more investigation is needed.
Edward Burroughs III, a member of the Board of Education's minority bloc, said this month that the audit did not go far enough. He hinted that there were other complaints that were not explored.
Maxwell said he saw no reason to examine the issue further, calling the investigation a "very, very thorough" review that provided useful information about a serious matter.
Raaheela Ahmed, also a member of the board's minority bloc, said she thinks accountability for improper action is important but wants to ensure the school system focuses on those who called the shots, not those who may have been pressured.
"I want to make sure the right people are being held accountable for the situation we're in, and not the foot soldiers," she said. "It's a very complex situation, and you don't want someone to be held responsible for something they were told to do by someone else."
John White, a spokesman for the school system, said no employees have been disciplined or fired related to the fraud allegations.
Curtis Valentine, a member of the board majority on this issue, said he appreciated the urgency Maxwell and other leaders gave to the problems identified in report, adding that they were proactive in addressing issues on credit recovery before the report came out. "This is one step, and I think another step is that parents and educators feel comfortable enough to come forward with any concerns about the implementation of the changes," he said.
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.